When Words Saved Indianapolis

There once was a time not so long ago when words spoken from a man’s heart delivered true impact upon humanity. No, this is not about some long-dead Greeks from ancient times that you have forgotten by now if you ever learned of any of them in the first place. This is about what happened in a big city half a century ago in the United States of America in our extremely violent culture.

It was half a century ago when a young candidate was enthusiastically seeking to be elected that November to the office of President of the United States. He never made it.

Robert Francis Kennedy lived but 42 years, yet his impact for “mere” spoken words puts him in the rarified company of significant ancient and contemporary leaders. Why is this so?

Many people feel a palpable fear of speaking in public. This is precisely why I often cite a little-known event in 1968 where RFK spoke as a direct way to help my coaching clients understand that, yes, there are correct ways to speak in public. RFK spoke to a crowd in the city of Indianapolis, Indiana, yet most people never were taught about this in their American history classes.

So, let me try to make up for those weak American history teachers everywhere who failed to teach their students about this important event. RFK had a previously-scheduled campaign speech on his calendar for the evening of Thursday, April 4, 1968 in a predominantly African American neighborhood in Indianapolis. His original purpose for speaking that evening was to solicit votes in the next day’s Indiana Primary.

His arrival in Indiana plunged RFK deeply into history. He landed at Indianapolis airport within an hour or so of the Memphis, Tennessee assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the most visible spokesperson and leader of the civil rights movement of the 20th century. RFK knew that he could not simply walk into that predominantly African American neighborhood in Indianapolis and ask people to vote for him the next day.

Instead of his prepared campaign speech, RFK spoke for only about five minutes without visibly relying upon any notes. He shocked the crowd by expressing to them very bluntly that King was shot dead and there was evidence that white people were responsible. He also directly said he understood how that crowd in Indianapolis could respond with bitterness, hatred, and a desire for revenge.

Even more shocking was that RFK in Indianapolis spoke for the very first time spoke about his deep feelings following the shooting death five years earlier of his brother, President John F. Kennedy. Clearly, RFK connected with that Indianapolis audience because he chose to speak from his heart about his own feelings of bitterness, hatred, and a desire for revenge after his brother was murdered.

The white mayor of Indianapolis warned RFK not to go speak to that predominantly African American crowd because the mayor feared there would be violent responses of a specific blacks-against-whites racial nature once the news of King’s murder that night because widely known. Obviously, RFK was of a totally different mind than the white mayor of Indianapolis.

While other major cities in the United States erupted in racially-motivated violence over the next several days, after RFK spoke in Indianapolis, there were no riots. He dared to ask that shocked crowd directly to dedicate themselves “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” His life was ended savagely by gun shots in Los Angeles two months later.

Some remember that night as when RFK saved Indianapolis using mere spoken words. People nowadays tend not to speak directly and from their heart minus bitterness and hatred like RFK did that night in Indiana. In stunning contrast, I perceive of one elected leader in the United States today whose spoken words are entirely in service to himself and because of that are absent the power “to make gentle the life of this world.”