In the spring of 1968, while growing up in Indianapolis, my mother scooped up me and my three younger siblings and told us that she was going to take us to hear the next president of the United States speak. It was a misty, overcast night but I was excited to go – even if I had to stand in the rain. When we arrived at the near northeast park, the mainly African American crowd was buzzing with expectation. Though just 11 years old, I knew that this was a big deal. Soon, Robert Kennedy and his staff arrived at the park. But they didn’t look happy. We were about 30 yards away and I could see the tension on the faces of Kennedy and his team. I sensed something was wrong. From the very beginning, they did not look like they were at a presidential campaign rally. Finally, Bobby Kennedy stood on the back of a truck and announced to all of us that Martin Luther King, Jr. had just been assassinated in Memphis. The crowd, including my mother, all began to gasp, scream, then cry. As sad as I instantly felt, I was determined not to cry. I wanted to be strong. I do remember thinking, however, as the light drizzle fell on my face, it would help to camouflage my tears – but I did not cry. As people were dealing with the shock, some of the folks in the back were getting agitated. I could feel the anger rising. Bobby Kennedy then gave one of the most famous speeches in American political history. He quoted the poet, Aeschylus; talked about the need for love, not hate and then calmed the crowd in a way no one else could do by letting them know that he understood how they felt – especially since, as he said, “a white man killed my brother”. With each word he spoke, you could feel his anguish, his agony and his compassion.
That night, nearly every major American city burned in rioting because of the anger over Dr. King’s murder. All except Indianapolis. Bobby Kennedy did what no other white man in America could do that night: he connected with an African American crowd in a way to dissuade them from striking out because of Dr. King’s death. A surreal spiritual energy descended on us all during that intense emotional moment. For those of us watching and listening to him, Bobby Kennedy was no longer a white man talking to Black folks; he was a man who had lost a loved one to a senseless act of violence consoling a group of people who had just lost a loved one to another senseless act of violence. We were all connected through our humanity.
I thought of that night during a recent visit to my Indianapolis hometown. I was visiting the Oaks Academy, a private pre-K-8 elementary school located just five blocks from the park where Bobby Kennedy gave his now legendary speech. The school is one of a kind. Ninety-seven percent of the 600 plus kids are proficient in both reading and math. Indeed, the school’s scores are among the best in the state. Fifty percent of the kids are on free or reduced lunch. Almost 60% of the Oaks students are recipients of scholarships from the Indiana Opportunity Scholarship Program. But here is the really remarkable thing about Oaks Academy: the other 50 percent of the kids come from middle class to upper middle class families. In fact, some of the wealthy parents drive from as far away as Carmel, a well-to-do suburb, to enroll their kids in the school. The Head of School Andrew Hart, works hard to keep the racial and socio-economic balance of the school in place. His waiting list consists of equal parts poor kids and kids from wealthy families. Both groups benefit from the socialization experience of being exposed to someone from a totally different world. For instance, Mr. Hart shakes his head when talking about how extremely different Christmas break is for his kids. One set of kids may go to Vail to ski over the break, while another group of kids have the primary responsibility of taking care of and watching their younger siblings.
How does Oaks do it? “It helps that most of our kids enroll at our school in pre-K and remain here until they are ready for high school,” say Andrew Hart. “So all of our kids and their families feel like they are part of a community. The kids all grow up together. And all are close, irrespective of their backgrounds. They are connected through their shared experience at our school, through our values and our humanity.”
Today, with America’s schools more segregated than when the1954 Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court decision legally struck down the practice of ‘separate but equal,’ it is exceedingly rare to see a school with such a diverse socio-economic mix of students. It is more rare to see a school community so dedicated to preserve that mix. When I left the amazing Oaks Academy, I drove by Martin Luther King Park, where I witnessed history that tragic night in 1968. As I glanced at the memorial located on the spot where Bobby Kennedy spoke, I thought about both Kennedy and King’s dream of a colorblind society and the irony of how that society is more evident at the tiny elementary school down the street than in most places in America.