There are these life-changing events, events that somehow affect the way one thinks and acts. For me, one of those life-changing events took place on April 4, 1968 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
It’s not easy at this point – 46 years later – to remember how I felt as I decided to attend a campaign rally for Bobby Kennedy. I had a dinner invitation at a friend’s house, and I knew I’d be on my own for several hours after that dinner. I’d read the Indianapolis paper’s coverage of his planned speaking stops, and knew where to go. But going to the speech was secondary to my plans for the evening, not primary. I was more interested in seeing my friend.
I thought Bobby Kennedy was both inspirational and aspirational – but I wanted to hear him address the practicalities. Not just what our country should be and where it should change policy, but how we were going to do that. I wanted to learn what he could do to address the issues that were facing our country then – racial disparity, a foreign war, economic upheaval, an educational system that was not meeting our expectations.
I was not impressed with the field of candidates that year. I already felt disillusioned by national politics. I was looking for a reason to become passionate about the election to come – although I was still too young to vote, I wanted to advocate, or volunteer, or somehow make a difference.
There is no idealist more committed than an 18-year-old. Or so I think now.
April 4 was cool and rainy, typical for Indiana. My friend and I walked to the event – down Meridian to 16th, then over to the Herron Art Museum and 17th. I arranged to meet my parents at Herron for the ride back home.
What I wanted, and what I received, were very different. I wanted a speech that would be longer on ‘how’ to achieve the goal of a more just country. What I received – as the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination began to filter through the crowd – was a speech that united the crowd, that unified the community, and that gave me hope for the future – a future that could hold equity and brotherhood and kindness and forgiveness.
We left the rally quietly, talking about what we had heard and felt.
You may not remember this speech, but I do.
Almost exactly two months later, on June 5th, Bobby Kennedy was killed. I spent the time between his death and his funeral isolated in my room. I stopped thinking of myself as politically engaged. I felt powerless to change the climate of hatred and violence.
And eight years later, a casual encounter with a neighbor made me realize I could make a difference, here in Ann Arbor, my adopted home.
Every year on April 4th, I quietly mark this anniversary. And I remind myself that I live in a community that remembers, a community that embraces his message:
“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country. . . ”