The Presidential primary in 2008, with candidates from Barack Obama to Hillary & Chelsea Clinton crisscrossing the state, probably brought back memories of another year when Indiana was in the political spotlight. In 1968 Robert F. Kennedy decided to challenge LBJ and Eugene McCarthy for the Democratic nomination, and he made Indiana his test case.
Ray E. Boomhower tells the story in his book from Indiana University Press, Robert F. Kennedy and the 1968 Indiana Primary. The heart of the narrative is the night of April 4, 1968, when Kennedy stood on the back of a flatbed truck and told an inner-city crowd that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot and killed. His heartful words, referencing his own pain and anger at his brother’s assassination, impressed the listeners, and Indianapolis did not experience the kind of rioting that went on in the rest of the country.
This incident forms the material for the Indiana Historical Society’s new “You Are There” exhibit, which puts the viewer in the middle of the crowd, listening to Kennedy’s speech. It is a moving experience and an exceptional use of technology.
The book, however, adds a great deal of context to this famous event. Governor Roger Branigin is a key character, having agreed to run as a stand-in for President Johnson. Boomhower was able to interview some of the remaining cast of characters, including Gordon St. Angelo, the state party chairman, and Louis Mahern and Michael Riley, young Hoosier Democrats who worked on Kennedy’s campaign. Other oral histories that are woven into the book came from the archives of the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Libraries.
The result is both insider information about the political maneuvering as well as human moments, such as the phone call that Kennedy made to Coretta Scott King when he got back to his hotel after the speech.
The final vote total in the Indiana primary was Kennedy, 42.3%; Governor Branigin, 30.7%; and Eugene McCarthy, 27% – a result that soon faded into the meaningless trivia of history when Robert Kennedy himself was assassinated the following month in Los Angeles. The eventual winner of the Presidential election was Richard Nixon.
Both a full treatment of the Kennedy-King story, now memorialized in a park and sculpture at 17th and Broadway, and a incisive portrait of the Indiana Democratic Party as it was in the 1960s, Robert F. Kennedy and the 1968 Indiana Primary brings to life an era when the nation had great decisions to make and candidates stepped forward to champion the causes they felt were paramount – peace, poverty, patriotism.
Ray E. Boomhower was the 2010 winner in the regional category of the Eugene & Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award, sponsored by the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library Foundation.