Civil rights icon John Lewis recalled crying in an Indianapolis park where in 1968 he heard Sen. Robert Kennedy tell a crowd about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and make a plea for peace and unity.
Lewis, who is now a Georgia congressman, spoke Wednesday during a gathering in that park to mark the 50th anniversary of King’s death and Kennedy’s extemporaneous speech that’s credited with helping Indianapolis avoid the riots that broke out in many cities.
Kennedy, who was running for president, was to deliver a campaign speech that night in the park in what was a predominantly African-American neighborhood near downtown Indianapolis. Instead, he broke the news about King’s shooting to many in the crowd, called for a nonviolent response and talked about his brother John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Lewis, who was a Kennedy campaign aide in 1968, told the several hundred people gathered in the windy, cold park Wednesday that it was difficult for him to be back there for the first time since that night.
“If it hadn’t been for Martin Luther King Jr., I don’t know what would have happened to our nation. I don’t know what would have happened to many of us that had been left out and left behind. I thank God that he lived,” Lewis said. “He taught us how to stand up, to be brave, courageous and bold, and to never give up.”
The event, which included Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb and U.S. Sens. Joe Donnelly and Todd Young, came a day after President Donald Trump signed a bill designating the park as the Kennedy-King National Commemorative Site. It commemorates the park’s Landmark for Peace memorial, which features likenesses of King and Kennedy reaching out toward one another.
U.S. Rep. Andre Carson of Indianapolis said he hopes the park’s historic designation “will serve as a reminder of the need for non-violence and tolerance in our community and world.”
Kerry Kennedy, one of Robert Kennedy’s daughters, said her father’s appeal that night still applies.
“We must build a system of justice that enjoys the confidence of all sides, that peace is not just something to pray for but something each of us has the responsibility to create daily,” she said.
Lewis said he believes King and Kennedy would both say today “love each other and never hate, for hate is too heavy a burden to bear.”
Lewis drew comparisons between King’s fight for equal rights for blacks and the current debates over immigrant and gay rights.
“When you see something that is not right, something that is not fair, something that is not just, you have a moral obligation to say something, to do something. You cannot be quiet,” Lewis implored the crowd.