Indiana’s 1968 primary
still resonates 48 years later
Fond memories linger from
Robert F. Kennedy’s visit to Madison, Ind.
March 2016 Cover
(March 2016) – Women got the right to vote on Aug. 26, 1920. Less than three months later, they voted in their first U.S. presidential election. Warren G. Harding of Ohio was elected president. Just that spring, Harding had come to Madison, Ind., to campaign in the primaries. Interestingly, he was the last presidential candidate to visit Madison in a primary campaign for the next 48 years.
That was 1968, the year of the hotly contested Indiana Democratic Primary that pitted Indiana Gov. Roger Branigin against the anti-war candidate, Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy, 52, and the underdog, New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, 42. On March 31, President Lyndon B. Johnson shocked the nation by saying he would not seek re-election. On March 16, Sen. Kennedy had announced his candidacy. The Indiana Primary would be his first race, and it was to be crucial. Advisers and campaign workers knew they were in for a tough fight.
FACEBOOK comments posted online about the iconic photo of RFK campaigning in Madison, Ind., in 1968:
Warren Rucker: See the lady in front of RFK with the hat. The little guy by her boobs is me. My dad is behind him on the left.
Tony Stoner: My Dad picked him up at the airport and gave him a ride downtown (in Dr. Rucker’s convertible).
Bob Ford: Remember it well, I got to shake his hand while he was in a convertible on Main St. & Jefferson.
Pamela Moon: I'm on the stairs to the right, just a couple of people from Bobby Kennedy. I have a campaign hat on. Got kicked out of the national honor society for skipping school that day...got reinstated though later!
Curt Rowlett Sr.: I got in trouble too for skipping school. But I shook his hand when he was leaving the courthouse and riding down Main Street in the convertible.
Christy Chandler Jackson: Was in the 4th grade at Eggelston and we got to go see him he shook my hand, I said I wouldn't ever wash it.
Janie Buchanan: Mark's sister Rande painted a picture in art class of Robert Kennedy and she was able to walk up the steps and Mr. Kennedy signed it. Mark took her that day so he got up close, too.
Tony Stoner: My mom still has a thank you card from Ethel Kennedy thanking her for helping out that day.
Judy Park Clymer: I saw him near Jefferson & Main Street when either leaving or going to the courthouse. Seems like he was Pierre Sallinger, if my long-term memory serves me right.
Angela Connelly: I remember the car dad drove him around in. It had electric windows! OMG! Parked in our garage. Dad was like body guarding Bobby! Haahaa. Cool.
Judy Rhodehamel Couch: I got in trouble for skipping school. They were going to take 33&1/3% of our grades for each class missed. They didn't.
Betty K. Bower Craig: I was there!!! Wonderful day!!!
James Edwards: I remember that day very well. I was there with my sister Mary and my mom and dad.
Johnny J Moye: I was in the library of Lydia Middleton School when his motorcade drove by.
Paul Neal: My mother came and got me out of school for it. I ran up to the car and shook his hand at Jefferson and Main. You couldn't go up to the car like that these days!
Cathy Pryor: I shook his hand at the small Madison airport. He was beautiful.
Rosie Burns: Mom let me skip school to be there.
Del Albertson: I was in 4th grade. He came to E.O. Muncie.
During this U.S. presidential election year, many in the Madison community are harkening back to those colorful days of campaigning and the day Robert F. Kennedy came to town. He spoke on the steps of the Jefferson County Courthouse – a scene immortalized in a locally famous photo that appeared in the Madison Courier and taken by then Courier photographer Mike Hinant. When the photo recently appeared on Facebook, dozens of area residents commented about their memories of that day in May 1968. Many were elementary schoolchildren at the time, but their memories of seeing a Kennedy in Madison remains to this day a vivid experience, according to their online comments.
Kennedy’s swing through Indiana began on April 4, 1968, when he flew to Indianapolis to campaign for the Indiana primary, held May 7. Shortly before his plane landed, he heard the news that Civil Rights advocate Martin Luther King had been assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. Indianapolis Mayor Richard Lugar and city police feared a race riot, so they urged Kennedy not to speak.
Kennedy brushed off concerns and spoke at a rally in the heart of the city’s African American community. Standing on a flatbed truck parked in a playground at 17th Street and Broadway, he told the crowd, “I have some very sad news.” He never looked down at the paper in his hand, only at the faces in the crowd. He reminded people, “I had a member of my family killed.”
In conclusion, he said: “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be black or whether they be white.”
Riots, fires and violence broke out in 100 cities that night, but not in Indianapolis. He had delivered one of the great speeches in American history. Some of the words from that speech are etched near his gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Kennedy spent the early days of the campaign with motorcades and speaking engagements in major cities. Then he shifted his focus to rural areas and small towns, and Madison was the beneficiary of that attention.
On April 29, Pierre Salinger and his wife, Nicole, arrived in Madison amid a three-car caravan led by then-Sheriff Harold Raisor. Salinger spoke to a crowd of 250 from the courthouse steps. The former press secretary to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson urged voters to support “Bobby” Kennedy. Salinger puffed on a long cigar as an enthusiastic crowd waved a Kennedy banner.
Sen. Robert F. Kennedy with campaign staff and others ride in a red convertible as they campaign in Indianapolis in 1968.
The next day, April 30, Sen. Kennedy’s sister, Pat Kennedy Lawford, campaigned in Madison. She visited Hanover College, talked with shoppers at Clifty Plaza on the Madison hilltop, and greeted supporters during a reception at Clifty Inn.
And then the 48-year “drought” ended. Two presidential candidates – McCarthy and Kennedy – came to Madison within the space of two days. “That was quite a week,” said Mike Hinant, 71, now residing in Appleton, Wisc. Hinant was a reporter-photographer who covered the events for the Madison Courier at the time. Democratic County Chairman, Dr. Harold Hertz, introduced both presidential candidates to the crowds at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Madison. Both spoke from the steps of the Courthouse. Both had motorcades through town and drew admiring crowds.
Sen. McCarthy came on May 1 and gave an energetic speech to a crowd of 700. Many Hanover College students were present. “We have proven that if college students are given a chance to participate in significant decisions . . . they act with energy, good will, intelligence and imagination,” McCarthy said.
Afterward, he strolled down Main Street Madison with “the impressive stride of a good-natured and intelligent country statesman,” Hinant wrote. A farmer wearing overalls said, “Good luck Senator. I hope you make it all the way to the White House.”
A woman called out, “I think it is wonderful you came here.”
With the TV cameras and buses of news reporters, the town had not seen this much excitement since the filming of the 1959 movie “Some Came Running,” Hinant wrote. On the ride back to the Madison Municipal Airport, Hinant asked McCarthy about his poetry. “He had been talking about politics but leaned back and relaxed. He liked talking about poetry.” He wanted to write something about the great respect Hoosiers have for trees.
Despite the excitement generated by McCarthy’s visit, it was clear that Sen. Kennedy’s visit on May 3 would be different. Kennedy had star power, and he was the idol of hundreds of Jefferson County, Ind., residents.
When Kennedy’s plane landed at the airport at 11:11 a.m., 500 people already were waiting. Dr. Merritt O. Alcorn lent his Buick convertible to the Democratic Party for the motorcade. Deep maroon with beige leather seats, “it was a very very nice car that really stood out,” according to his son, attorney Merritt Alcorn of Madison. “It was absolutely beautiful.” The vehicle had electric windows, unusual for that time.
Alcorn’s son, David Alcorn, chuckled that his grandfather always liked the newest thing in technology, so he would have wanted a car with electric windows.
Throngs of people crowded around the Jefferson County Courthouse and spilled across Main Street. Kennedy was surrounded by outstretched hands and homemade signs. Many youth skipped school to go to the event, despite threats that their grades would be cut. “It was a big exodus,” according to Alcorn. He wasn’t there, but his late wife, Sharon, went, despite the fact that she might jeopardize her rank as second in her class.
His current wife, Carolyn, also skipped class to go. “Robert Kennedy had rock star status among young people then,” Alcorn said.
Photo by Nick Meacham
David Alcorn (left) poses with his father, Merritt, in front of the Jefferson County (Ind.) Democratic Headquarters in Madison, Ind.
Indeed, engagement with the young was a crucial part of Kennedy’s campaign as well as his platform of racial equality and economic justice, non-aggression in foreign policy, decentralization of power and social improvement.
After taking the microphone from Dr. Hertz, Sen. Kennedy told the cheering crowd that the last time he had been in Madison was 1960, when he campaigned for his brother, John F. Kennedy, but Madison voted for Richard Nixon.
“This is the year people must decide what direction they want to move. Indiana is one of the few states where people themselves can decide, and the issues are so important,” he said.
He gave an “explosive capsule description of his views from issues concerning the war in Vietnam to hunger in the Mississippi River Delta,” Hinant reported. Hinant also was able to talk briefly with Kennedy, whom he described as having “a tremendous amount of energy.”
“Yes, he had star power,” Hinant said. “He was very sharp and very sincere. He was very genuine and really wanted to do something. I felt that way about McCarthy, too.” Sometime during the rally, Kennedy stood up on the trunk of Dr. Alcorn’s convertible in order to talk to people. That resulted in a dent.
Kennedy went on to win Jefferson County with 1,968 votes and the Indiana Democratic primary on May 7, capturing 42.3 percent of the vote. He was successful in three other primaries, Nebraska, South Dakota and California, while McCarthy was successful in six. The eventual nominee, Hubert H. Humphrey did not compete in the primaries, a situation that led to a change in party rules in 1972.
In the 48 years since Kennedy’s visit to Madison, the details of that day have faded from memory for many, but the occasion continues to stir intense feelings. People are especially drawn to Hinant’s photograph of Kennedy speaking from the Courthouse steps. Hinant, who studied journalism at Indiana University, worked at the Madison Courier from 1967-68, when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in June.
Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Recorder
Robert F. Kennedy announces the death of Martin Luther King at a rally in Indianapolis. His speech that night became one of his greatest.
“There was so much going on in 1968, lots and lots going on.” On a small-town paper, “I was about to check tobacco prices and take river readings,” he said. “We did everything.” He still is pleased he was able to meet the candidates, write the stories and “get a picture that still is up there.” In 1976, while writing for the Appleton Post-Crescent, he talked 45 minutes and drank iced tea with then-unknown presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, who was campaigning in Wisconsin.
The late Graham Taylor, then sports editor for the Madison Courier, wrote about local response to the tragedy. Jefferson County residents had loved Kennedy, he wrote. He had won the primary in this county with 1,968 votes. Flags were lowered; events cancelled, and special church services planned. Local officials were quoted about their shock and disbelief. “I had this run through my mind when Sen. Kennedy was here, knowing it could happen but dismissing it as impossible,” said Dr. Hertz. “But all the time you realize it isn’t impossible.”
One Madison resident who shared memories of the Kennedy visit is Warren Rucker, 59. He was only 11 years old when Kennedy visited, and “it was a really big day for me.” His late father, Dr. Warren Rucker, stood next to Sen. Kennedy on the Courthouse steps, and the 11-year-old was at the bottom of the steps. Dr. Rucker, a cardiologist, and “people person,” according to his son and namesake, was Kennedy’s campaign manager in Jefferson County. “Dad was an admirer of Kennedy,” said the younger Rucker. “That is the thing I remember most about the day – just watching my dad. I was so happy for him.” He later was elected mayor of Madison.
“Kennedy had a presence of greatness. I was impressed with his presence. I could tell he was ‘something,’ ” Rucker said.
Bob Ford, 52, of Ridgefield, Wash., has vivid memories of the day. A junior in high school, he was working at Volz Chevrolet through the Vocational Industrial Clubs of America. “I snuck out the back door,” he said, and made his way to the Courthouse. He saw Kennedy “stopping and talking to everybody, signing autographs. The street was full of people. I was floored. I was just floored that I could shake his hand and get that close. I was 16. He was the biggest thing that had come to Madison, the biggest thing in Madison since they made that movie. He was open to people, and that shocked me.”
Commenting on the Kennedy charisma, Ford said, “He was bigger than the hydroplanes. He was the biggest. There was nobody else. Huge. The biggest. He had a big smile and an inviting personality. He could bring you right in. Nobody was going to beat him. He was the leader of the pack.”
Fred Shimfessel was only 4 years old, but the big crowds and the event itself made a made “a huge impression on me,” he said. “It has had a profound effect to this day, and I am an established Democrat to this day.”
The night of his Indiana victory, Kennedy talked casually with friends. His victories in Indiana and the District of Columbia had established him as a viable candidate. A loss for him in the first primary he entered could have stopped his campaign in its tracks. In an article by Joseph Palermo, he was quoted as telling friends, “I like Indiana. The people here were fair to me. They gave me a chance. They listened to me. I could see this face, way in the back in the crowd, and he was listening, really listening to me. The people here are not so neurotic and hypocritical as in Washington or New York. They’re more direct. I like rural people, who work hard with their hands. There is something healthy about them . . . I loved the faces here in Indiana, on the farmers, on the steelworkers, on the black kids.”
Soon after leaving Indiana, Kennedy traveled to California. Shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968, Kennedy gave a victory speech to supporters in the California primary. While taking a short-cut through the kitchen to the press room at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, he was shot three times by Sirhan Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian. He died of his wounds 26 hours later. His assassination led to Secret Service protection for all future major presidential candidates.
Only a month before, he had been in Madison shaking hands and signing autographs. “It was just a shock,” said Ford.
“We were in mourning,” said Rucker. “Dad loved him. I mostly remember the funeral. I was sad more because my dad was sad. I knew something tragic had happened. It was despair. We knew he was going to do great things. It was terrible.”
On June 4, Merritt Alcorn sat up with his dad to watch television coverage of returns from the California primary. Dr. Alcorn was a Kennedy supporter; his son, a McCarthy supporter. It was a crucial race for Kennedy, since McCarthy had just won the primary in Oregon. “Eventually, I went to bed, and dad woke me up to tell me the news,” Alcorn said.
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