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Hometown Secrets: The famous Michiana campaign stop by Senator Bobby Kennedy

ElectionsMartin Luther King Jr.Barack Obama1st Source Corp.Stepan Company

We are at the end of the election season, and so far our area hasn't received a visit from any of the presidential candidates. But over the last 130 years we have seen our share of campaign stops.

According to the Center for History, one of the earliest visits came from Benjamin Harrison in 1888. He was running against and eventually beat Grover Cleveland. Harrison chose Clem Studebaker, the co-founder of the Studebaker Company, to be on his inaugural committee.

Then in 1896, William Jennings Bryan visited South Bend. A picture from the Center for History shows Bryan's carriage making a stop in South Bend. Bryan was running against William McKinley -- but he eventually lost.

South Bend has also seen presidential campaign visits from Dwight Eisenhower and, more recently, Hillary Clinton and then Senator Barack Obama in 2008.

But arguably the most significant visit came from Senator Bobby Kennedy.

The year was 1968: The Vietnam war had just peaked, Martin Luther King Jr. was fighting for economic justice, and Kennedy was running for president.

According to local historians, Kennedy's first visit to South Bend came on April 4, 1968. He was running in the Indiana Primary. He visited the University of Notre Dame. Pictures show he spoke to a standing room only crowd at the Stepan Center. A sign behind the podium read, "N.D. Welcomes R.F.K."

After a couple more campaign stops throughout the state, Kennedy arrived in Indianapolis. It was there he was told of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assasination and it was there he gave one of his most famous speeches.

Kennedy stood for racial and social equality. He believed in peace and economic justice. This resonated with people across the country and here in Indiana.

"I remember it was a spring day," says retired WSBT photographer Ray Roth. "It was chilly but a beautiful day."

Roth had been working at WSBT for just a few months, his assignment on Dyngus Day in 1968 -- to cover the visit of Bobby Kennedy.

"It was really amazing, and here I was a 21-year-old kid, and here I get to cover something like this. I had only been there 6 months at the time," says Roth. "It was really a significant event for South Bend; there is no doubt."

Pictures taken by the South Bend Tribune that day show thousands of people lined along the streets to see Kennedy and touch him. Local historians say his motorcade stopped in South Bend, Elkhart and eventually Mishawaka.

"It was the biggest political gathering that Mishawaka had seen up to that time and to this day I don't think there has been a political gathering that has topped that," says historian Pete DeKever.

A picture from the Mishawaka Public Library shows Kennedy standing along Main Street in Mishawaka, in front of what is now the 1st Source Bank Building. He is speaking to thousands of people. DeKever says it was estimated that more than 5,000 people came to hear Bobby Kennedy that day.

DeKever says Kennedy talked about the Vietnam War, acknowledging it wasn't going well. He talked about peace and an end to urban violence.

"He knew he had to be careful not to appear too liberal in Indiana but also be able to get elected and get the vote," says DeKever.

Kennedy won the Democratic primary in Indiana, and many speculate that he could have won the presidency. But Kennedy was shot and later died from his wounds in early June.

Even 44 years after his death, Kennedy's impact on our nation and our area has not been forgotten.

"It was really a defining event for people who were alive in Mishawaka in the '60s," says DeKever. "They remember where they were when Bobby Kennedy came to Mishawaka."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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