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“. . . to tame the savageness of man”
Will the protests that gripped Indianapolis this summer make a meaningful difference on the city and state’s political landscape? The answer might be found in the story of Bill Crawford.
It was not what he expected. When William “Bill” Crawford, a 32-year-old U.S Navy veteran active in the Indianapolis anti-Vietnam War movement, came to the outdoor rally at Seventeenth and Broadway Streets the evening of Thursday, April 4, 1968, he had expected to hear more about America’s involvement in the conflict from one of its outspoken critics, U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, in the city to kick off his campaign for the Indiana Democratic presidential primary against his opponents, incumbent Indiana governor Roger Branigin and U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota.
Crawford was stunned when he heard Kennedy break the news that Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated earlier that day while in Memphis, Tennessee. The news of the civil rights leader’s violent end at the hands of a white gunman had sparked outrage and violence across the country. But in Indianapolis the crowd gathered to hear from Kennedy had taken to heart the senator’s plea to “dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and to make gentle the life of this world,” quietly leaving and returning to their homes in peace. “We walked away in pain but not with a sense of revenge,” Crawford noted.
Still, Crawford remembered that there remained a “lot of anger and frustration that Dr. King, whose message was one of non-violence and working within the system, was the victim of that kind of racism.” He decided, however, to turn his personal anger into more constructive action—making a difference in the city’s political dynamic. “My thinking was that if this man [King] could give his life, I had to do something,” Crawford said. “Didn’t know what that something was . . . but I couldn’t just sit back.” Eventually, the former postal employee, with prompting from another Indianapolis African American political leader, Julia Carson, ran for public office as a state representative. Crawford served for four decades in the legislature and rose to become one of the most influential lawmakers the Indiana General Assembly had ever seen.
In 1968, King enjoyed a national and international reputation for his stand on behalf of civil rights. But in 2020 most people had never heard of George Floyd Jr. before his death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers while in custody on May 25. With stark video of the incident widely available through social media, however, what happened to Floyd sparked protests against police brutality and injustice around the country. In Indiana Hoosiers gathered to demonstrate at more than twenty communities around the state. Instead of the general calm that had been engendered by Kennedy’s profound words and the crowd’s good sense in 1968, Indianapolis, in 2020, witnessed numerous nights of violence, including shootings and deaths just a few miles away from the “Landmark for Peace,” a memorial dedicated to the efforts of King and Kennedy to bring people of all races and faiths together.
It is far too early to know if the current protests will produce leaders of the stature of Crawford to make their own positive contributions to social justice in the city, state, and country. There is comfort in knowing, however, that there exist organizations such as the Kennedy King Memorial Initiative to aid those grieving to, as the initiative proclaims, to “constructively channel the pain we collectively feel into lasting action.”