Civil Rights Era: How the City of Indianapolis responded then versus now

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INDIANAPOLIS — The civil rights era was a movement that shaped the country as well as the lives, rights and opportunities of many African-Americans today.

Throughout that era, there were points where the country erupted, but not Indianapolis.

Over the past 100 years, Indianapolis has struggled with equality for housing, economic opportunities, quality of education and police relations when it comes to African Americans. It’s the same fight many of the protestors since the death of George Floyd have been echoing.

“Justice is when you do the right thing for all people at the right time. No matter what it may be, who it may be, what color, whatever,” said former deputy mayor Olgen Williams.

It’s that fight for justice that Indianapolis has been battling for more than a century, but not always at the same pace as the rest of the nation. That’s how community activist Reginald Jones says The Circle City earned its nickname “Naptown.”

“Naptown got its name for napping, that we were never involved in anything,” said Jones.

“Indianapolis was maybe a little slower than some places, but again, I think they caught up to some degree,” said Williams.

During the Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1968, Willians was in Vietnam. But thousands of miles away, he says he was inspired by what he was seeing back home across America.

“Thousands of others began to go through the streets in a non-violent way to get the message [across]. Trying to show America how African Americans had been disenfranchised for hundreds of years, and it was time for a change,” recalled Williams.

Through those pivotal times of Emmett Till, Rosa Parks, the March on Washington and so many more, Indianapolis remained silent.

It was until the rainy night of April 4, 1968, and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., when Robert F. Kennedy spoke to the masses gathered at Kennedy-King Park.

“I think the speech that RFK gave was awesome, and the words hit the hearts of the people that were there,” said Williams.

But Jones was one that helped keep Indy safe.

“We stopped the riots when Kennedy was here,” said Jones.

Jones is a graduate of Crispus Attucks High School, the first black high school in Indianapolis which opened in 1927. He marched with Dr. King and knew his practices and took action to stop any possible riots.

“Leaders like Ray Akers, Eugene Akers, Ed Hurt, myself, John Lance, we controlled parts of the city, and we said that’s not going to happen,” explained Jones.

That same night, he opened a community center to give people something to do in the wake of the tragedy.

“They didn’t riot and tear up the city in ’68 like they did in the last week or so,” said Williams.

Here we are 52 years later, the rioting is new, but it’s still the same conversation and the same fight for justice.

“How do you change that? Justice to me is what it is. It’s fairness to all,” said Williams.

“This time they underestimated what was going on. This was horrific. So I say it was time for redemption. Redemption based upon hundreds of years of oppression that the lids busted open,” said Jones.

And in order to get past this, cooperation is needed from both sides.

“Let’s be our brother’s keeper and show some love of god and sit down and talk so we can all heal from this problem and move forward. We need healing in the city, in this country, and that healing will only come when we’re willing to have that conversation,” said Williams.

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