When legendary news reporter and retired telecommunications professor Steve Bell and historian Bruce Geelhoed remember April 4, 1968, they think of a tumultuous time in American history.
The nation was focused on the controversial Vietnam War as political candidates from both parties were gearing up campaigns for the 1968 U.S. presidential race. At the same time, college campuses were filled with civil rights and anti-war protests, as riots and violence were erupting across the nation.
But on that day, Ball State’s campus was abuzz with excitement as Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy spoke to a packed house in Irving Gymnasium (then known as Men’s Gym). Shortly after his speech concluded, Kennedy was informed that civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis. Kennedy then broke the news at his next campaign stop in nearby Indianapolis and his calming influence is credited with stopping any potential issues.
Geelhoed, a professor of history, noted that Kennedy’s stop at Ball State has historically tied the University to both Kennedy and King on a momentous day in American history.
“Kennedy attracted a huge crowd in the old Men’s Gym,” Geelhoed said. “He was a major political figure at that time. He was not only running for president, but he was the former attorney general to his older brother, John F. Kennedy, who had himself been assassinated a few years before.
“At that time, Muncie was a very important community for Democratic presidential candidates because the auto unions were powerful, not only here but in nearby Anderson and New Castle.”
The history professor admits he has watched an old film of the rally more times than he can count. (To view Ball State’s digital Robert F. Kennedy Speech Collection, including audio and video recordings, photographs, and a transcript of Kennedy’s speech, follow this link.)
Attracting a crowd
“When you see the film and compare it to today’s political rallies, it is night and day,” he said. The crowd for Kennedy’s half-hour speech was 9,000 to 10,000 people, almost three times the seating capacity. The University only had 7,000 seats to offer, which left 2,000 students to stand or sit on the gym’s floor.
Kennedy spoke for about 30 minutes, mostly about domestic issues and international problems that could arise post-Vietnam, and then took questions for another 20 minutes from the crowd.
Kennedy learned about King’s death as he was preparing to leave by plane from the Muncie airport en route to Indianapolis for a planned campaign stop. Kennedy often is credited with helping contain violence in the state capital with the uplifting and spontaneous speech he delivered there, despite concerns for his safety.
For Kennedy’s Muncie stop, said Geelhoed, “There was very little security in place. People just walked in and grabbed a seat. They were sitting on the floor of the gym and in the aisles. People were even standing behind the platform.”
“Everything had changed by 2008, when then-presidential candidate Barack Obama spoke in Irving Gymnasium,” he added. Obama spoke on April 12, 2008, on his campaign trail, 40 years and one week after Kennedy’s speech. “Everyone had to have a ticket and security was tight. It took just an hour to get in the door. It was clear that the Secret Service and other security were there.”
An event that ‘changed everything’
“The events of that year just changed everything about how you look at the country,” said the former award-winning journalist, who was only a few yards away from Kennedy on June 5, 1968, when he was fatally shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles while campaigning in California. “And I think that has given it a mark in our history that will always be there.”
“In 1968, we had a series of events that just turned us in a different direction — the assassination of King, followed by the murder of Kennedy. Then you had the anti-war protests at the Democratic (party) convention at Chicago with all that mayhem. And, President Johnson said he wouldn’t run for a second term.”
Bell, who spent many years on the campaign trail as a reporter and anchor, later came to Ball State in the 1990s to bring his years of knowledge and experience to the classroom.
The connection between Kennedy, King and Ball State is not lost on his journalistic sensibilities.
“It’s funny now, but I really didn’t know about Ball State’s part in all of this until I decided to take the job here. For Ball State, it is a major part in the campus’s history.
“Thinking back about that time in our nation’s history and my participation in it as a reporter, sometimes it takes a few years — even a decade or so — until you realize how important things are. So, I suppose it wasn’t really until the tenth anniversary of the deaths of King and Robert Kenney before I really stopped to reflect what 1968 meant.
“It is a year that none of us who lived through it will forget.”
The Ball State community will remember the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s visit to campus during an April 4 talk by author Ray Boomhower, who wrote “Robert F. Kennedy and the 1968 Indiana Primary.” The event, which is free and open to the public, begins at 7:30 p.m. in Bracken Library, Room 104. (Follow this link for more details.)