This Month In 1968–Not Yet The City Of Peace

Today, in 2022, we honor Martin Luther King Jr. Today in 1968 he is still alive and unaware of the future to come. Also today in 1968 the city that will be the scene of shocking silence on the night of his death is equally unaware of the future to come. I’ve written a short book about six leaders who lived their lives on the night that King lost his. These six people share three things–they are leaders as I define the term (they have followers); they are in Indianapolis the night of King’s murder; and they must help their followers make sense of this “tragic turn” of events. Below is what each of the six leaders is doing in January 1968, roughly 90 days before the fateful night. 

The six people and the city of Indianapolis

It’s the start of a new year in Indianapolis. The city has a population of 785,000. Let’s meet six people who either live in the city or are well-known as visitors.

Dr. Frank Lloyd is quiet, able to work by himself, and very smart. He is a medical doctor as well as director of medical research at the city’s largest hospital, one of the first black medical leaders in both Indianapolis and Indiana. Dr. Lloyd is also vice-president of the Metropolitan Plan Commission, one of the city’s most powerful formal groups. He’s been arguing against the location of a proposed interstate highway. He believes the four-lane highway’s position—erected on massive concrete pillars or “stilts” as the media calls it—will damage the quality of life for Black residents in downtown neighborhoods.

Paul Cantwell is friendly, outgoing, quick with a joke or a back-slapping smile, and comfortable making deals and bargains. He is an elected member of the county council. He’s a Democrat on the Republican-dominated council. Cantwell seldom backs away from an argument or a dispute. It’s as true now as it ever was for him: Cantwell has spent the last several weeks embroiled in disputes about various local governmental decisions. These disputes range from elevators to printing contracts to accusations of sexual misconduct at the juvenile detention center.

Carol Olsen is shy, intelligent, eager to do her best work as a nurse in caring for other people. Fresh from college, she is on her first nursing job. She is reliable and effective at the hospital (a hospital different from Lloyd’s). Her bosses notice this and decide to promote her—she is now a night-shift supervisor. With no formal leadership training or preparation, Olsen is nervous about being a supervisor. Moreover, many employees on the night shift are Black. She knows she has little experience in working with people of other races and ethnicities. Olsen decides that the best thing to do before the start of each night shift is to close the door of her small office and take some deep breaths to calm herself. She has much to live up to because the nurses at her hospital have an excellent reputation for caregiving in the city.

Richard Lugar is well-educated, optimistic, eager to make his way in the world as well as to help other people. In his young life he has already worked on changes he thinks must be made—as a member of the local school board, he pushed hard for racial integration of a key high school, Shortridge, where he attended in the early 1950s. He is now the new mayor of Indianapolis, the youngest mayor of a large city in the United States. As he approaches his thirty-sixth birthday, he has thrown himself into his new job as mayor. One of his first decisions is asking Dr. Lloyd to continue serving on the Metropolitan Plan Commission. Lugar wants to make big changes in the city. Among other things, he has met individually with 53 people—various people from all walks of life—who showed up at his office for the city’s first “Citizen Day.” “I maintain a basic idealism that we will change Indianapolis and that we will change it substantially,” Lugar tells a newspaper report, “This is a whole new ball game.”

Charles Hendricks is smart, savvy, knows a lot of people, and pushes the edges and tests the limits in changing things around him. He is a blend of an activist and rule-breaker, with influence among people who live near him. A Black resident of the near-northside of the city, everyone in the neighborhood knows Hendricks, including Dr. Lloyd and Cantwell; he will make himself known to Lugar. Lately, he’s been working with Ben Bell on the “19th and College Youth Program.” He and Bell attended a neighborhood meeting and told the crowd that the most important issues for Black residents were jobs and income. Everything else, they said, was secondary.

Robert Kennedy is sharp-minded, ambitious, and wealthy. He is a US Senator from New York with aspirations of national impact and national political office-holding. Kennedy had been Attorney General for his brother John F. Kennedy’s Presidential Administration. John Kennedy was shot and killed in 1963. Robert Kennedy disliked Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, who won election as president in 1964. Kennedy is considering whether or not to challenge Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968. He is friends with Dr. Lloyd. Paul Cantwell is an enthusiastic support of President Lyndon Johnson and hopes Kennedy will not campaign against Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination.

In the United States

The United States is mired in a bloody war in Vietnam. Though once largely supported by the American public, the war is now opposed by growing numbers of people. Some Americans believe the war is unjust and unwinnable. Some Americans believe the war could be won but is being lost by political and military officials. Regardless, the war produces more tensions and anxieties in American life. Also, American society is in the middle of jolting change—it’s almost everywhere you look: in civil rights, in women’s rights, in gay rights, in youth, in sex, in the environment, in religion, the list goes on and on. Last year was difficult. Unrest spilled over into clashes and confrontations in many cities. People wondered what would happen in an uncertain future. This year promises more of the same, and the same seen in more.

You At Now

When you stand at the start of something, you look ahead. You see a future. The start of a new year—as in January—is at the front of a future you expect to see, the remainder of the year, the next eleven months. You know some things that are in it; holidays, birthdays, the next days of the week, and so on. But there’s also a lot you don’t know. The year ahead can be filled with all sorts of things good, bad, and in-between.

Each of our six people in this story has the year in front of them. The year is the same on the calendar—it’s twelve months. Beyond that, however, their years will quickly look very different from one another. Lugar, Lloyd, Olsen, Kennedy, Hendricks, and Cantwell know that it’s as certain as the turning of the earth that they will experience a year that is unique to them as individuals.

Your year is like their year. Much around you operates on its own, without your input or approval. But much around you and, perhaps most importantly, much within you is yours to direct, yours to decide, yours to determine.

Question For You

What was your most important action of last month?