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Marching on the Governor's Mansion: The 1969 Protests in Opposition to Racism and Poverty

Updated: Apr 27, 2022

The past several weeks has seen an extraordinary development in the struggle for racial justice nationally. Following the police shooting deaths of George Floyd in Minnesota, of Dreasjon Reed locally, and of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, protests and marches for racial justice spread across the country, including here in Indianapolis. Butler Tarkington was the scene of a protest on June 1, 2020, when protestors marched from downtown, up Illinois Street, and then over to Meridian Street to the Governor’s mansion where they faced off with a line of Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Officers, backed up by a contingent of State Police (left image, below). After a stand-off at the intersection of 46th and Meridian, the protest ended peacefully.

Then, on Sunday, June 8, 2020, clergy of the Butler Tarkington neighborhood organized a march of repentance and forgiveness. The march started at the Common Ground Christian Church, one of three churches along 46h Street between Illinois and Capitol (right image, below). One of the clergy members, in their opening comments, mentioned that a longtime resident of the Butler Tarkington neighborhood told him that 51 years ago, another large march had gone through the neighborhood in opposition to racism. 51 years ago, was 1969, notable for being in the heart of the Civil Rights movement. But there was not just one march near Butler Tarkington in 1969, but two, both focusing on racism, along with poverty and other economic inequities.

Some background on Butler Tarkington and its history with racism in the middle of the last century can help provide context for recent events. In 1956, a multi-racial group of neighbors formed the Butler Tarkington Neighborhood Committee, with the intent to facilitate the peaceful integration of the BT neighborhood. The organization was formerly incorporated in November of 1960 as the Butler Tarkington Neighborhood Association ("BTNA"). The articles of incorporation stated the purpose of the BTNA: “The central objective of the Butler-Tarkington Neighborhood Association, Inc. shall be to conserve and improve the neighborhood by promoting cooperative efforts among residents, schools, churches and civic groups. This inter-racial Association shall actively foster better communication among the residents, with the view to preventing intergroup conflicts and to promoting the idea of democratic living.” The 1960’s saw efforts by the BTNA to combat the practice of block busting, while also addressing vandalism of African American owned homes in the 4600 Block of north Illinois. While racism was being addressed at the neighborhood level, in 1969 the two marches in protest of racism and poverty on a wider scale were organized with the focus of the marches being the old governor’s mansion at 4343 North Meridian.

The first march was planned to take place on Sunday, July 13, 1969, with a starting point in Watkins Park, at the intersection of 24th Street and present day Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. This march was a joint effort, between the Marion County AFL-CIO and Dr. Andrew J. Brown, the pastor of the St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church on the near northeast side. Brown had also been a friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and was a prominent figure in the Indianapolis Civil Rights movement, the march appeared primarily focused on poverty and the impact of racism on limiting economic opportunities for African Americans.

Dr. Brown, who at the time resided in Butler Tarkington at 233 W. 44th Street, was quoted in the Indianapolis Recorder a few days before: “We appeal to all segments of the community – labor, business, church, youth, black moderate, militant, governmental official, ghetto residents - to join us in a common task, to demonstrate that people of good will, regardless of differences, are determined to begin to implement massive programs through non-violent and peaceful means to end poverty and racism in our society.” The Recorder also reported that the entire weekend was going to be filled with activities, including a musical at St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church, and was part of a larger, state-wide movement for that weekend. Various local churches were also planning to open their doors to the public, especially to individuals from white churches, for “soul food dinners” on Sunday afternoon. The Indianapolis Star reported the planned route to be to cross 26th Street to Illinois, and then move north to 42nd Street, at which time the march would cross over to Meridian, and the governor’s mansion at 4343. (Note, the Recorder said the route would cut over to Meridian at 34th Street, not 42nd, possibly because there is no 42nd street cut through between Illinois and Meridian.

1969 anti-racism march Indianapolis history
Indianapolis News, July 14, 1969, Patty Haley

On July 13, the marchers gathered at Watkins Park and heard from various speakers. Reverend Bonifice Hardin spoke about the need for Indianapolis police to stop shooting down black men in the streets, and that upon reaching the governor’s mansion the governor would not see the protestors because “he’s a coward and won’t face us.” Hardin was one of several speakers who referenced the killing of an 18-year-old black suspect in a possible car theft a few days before by an IPD officer.

Hardin also encouraged marchers to take a look at the relatively new Interstate 65, which had been built through the near Northside: “It’s there because the man put it there and it displaced nearly 5,000 black people.” Andrew J. Brown spoke about the need for an “awakening in Indiana,” and that it was time for equality and higher wages for black citizens. Joan Davis, the vice president of the Welfare Rights Organization, spoke for the rights of mothers on government assistance, noting that “we’re not crying for handouts or free food,” but were instead seeking training opportunities and day care assistance so that “we can stand on our own two feet.”

1969 anti-racism march Indianapolis history
Indianapolis Recorder, July 19, 1969

The march proceeded northward through the Mapleton area and onto Meridian Street, between Butler Tarkington and Meridian Kessler. Upon reaching the governor’s mansion, the marchers left their signs and placards on the fence outside the mansion, since Governor Whitcomb was out of town at the time attending a meeting with his staff at Brown County State Park. (his absence had been reported in the News the day before, although he had expressed willingness to meet with Dr. Brown sometime in the future.) The Star reported that 300 protestors scaled the walls and hedges around the governor’s mansion.

Dr. Brown, addressing the marchers from the front porch, reminded the participants that the march was to be nonviolent, and asked that no property be harmed. The property manager for the mansion was interviewed in the Star and stated that he had not expected protestors to enter the grounds since the governor was not home. There was some minor damage consisting of a cut screen door, two broken windows, and damage to the flowers around the mansion. Cost for repairs was $300, which included the cost for removal of the signs left on the fence by the protestors. State Police were on the mansion grounds, but apparently did not take action against the protestors.

Following the march, Governor Whitcomb did not remain silent. Instead of meeting with Dr. Brown as he earlier indicated, on July 14, Whitcomb, expressed anger at the various protests and disorder in several Indiana cities, and promised an “appropriate and firm response whenever and wherever they take place.” Whitcomb dismissed any excuse for the protests, noting that “[t]he excuse that these disorders are a product of demands for increased government services or expressions of discontent will not be accepted.” Considering Whitcomb’s statement came less than a day after the July 13 protest to the governor mansion, its logical to conclude that the July 13 protest precipitated the governor’s hardline statement.

A few weeks later, on Sunday, July 27, a second march traveled to the Governor’s Mansion by way of Meridian Street. In addition to Dr. Brown, the march was headlined by Rev. Jesse Jackson from Chicago, who at the time was the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Operation Breadbasket. David Allison, a Republican state legislator was also participating in the march. Unlike the previous march, the July 27 effort started at Dr. Brown’s church, St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church, located at 1701 N. Martindale (Martindale has since been renamed after Dr. Brown). A rally with Rev. Jackson had preceded the march, and then marchers began the trip to the governor’s mansion with a police escort, although, as noted by the Indianapolis News on July 28, the march did not have a formal permit. A band preceded the marchers, playing “We Shall Overcome.”

Upon arriving at the mansion in the evening, the marchers were again met by a contingent of State Police estimated at 100, equipped with helmets, tear gas, and various other crowd control tools standing just inside the fence. Some police dogs were present, as were two helicopters. Indianapolis police were also present but held in reserve. Lastly, a detachment of Indiana National Guardsmen stationed at the statehouse ground downtown were also available. However, entry onto the mansion grounds was barred.

Rev. Jackson stood on top of a car hood outside the mansion, and led the crowd in a chant of “We are somebody,” and gave a speech, primarily focused on poverty, including criticizing the money being spent on the space program for “a few boxes of rocks from the moon…” He also noted the disparity between the neighborhoods the march had moved through, and the North Meridian Street neighborhood where the governor lived. In addition to Rev. Jackson, David Allison, a Republican legislator from Indianapolis also spoke, criticizing Governor Whitcomb for his veto of welfare legislation. Allison told the crowd that “Whitcomb could not possibly understand your problems. It is not his fault either, he has never lived in a house with rats or dirt on the floor.”

1969 anti-racism march Indianapolis history
Credit: Jim Burres, Indianapolis Recorder

The July 27 march and protest produced many dramatic photos of the marches and protests, but one of the most iconic was taken by Jim Burres, a photographer for the Indianapolis Recorder. The photo (left) shows a young girl staring through the fence of the governor's mansion at the assembled State Police Officers. The photo appeared in the Indiana Historical Society's Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History magazine in 1999, as part of the publication's 10th anniversary issue, which featured short essays about impactful photos from Indiana history. Todd Gould with WFYI wrote about the 1969 protest marches to the governor's mansion and the photo taken by Burres.

Gould's essay in Traces magazine also quoted Rev. Hardin regarding the peaceful nature of the July 27 march: 'There was no violence at all [at the rally]. In fact, after a couple hours, the state policemen realized that everything was going to be peaceful. Soon we saw them take their helmets off and put their guns away. A few even came out and joined in with the crowd. This was a critical development, not only for the march, but for the entire movement, as well. It became a time of great healing in our community."

Dr. Brown also gave comments, and thanked local groups, including the NAACP, Urban League, Black Panthers, and labor unions, who were helping to combat poverty and hunger. Whitcomb continued to receive criticism following the July 27, rally, not only for the show of force outside his residence, but also his comments about those protesting across the state. The president of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, Robert Risk, directing a statement towards Whitcomb, said that “[t}he nature of the grievances being protested…in no way reduces your responsibility as governor to hear their grievances and to insurance as far as is humanly possible that the reception given the protestors be dominated by a spirt of trust and goodwill.”

While Whitcomb had not been home during the first march, the Star reported that he was home and was “entertaining some friends” during the march on the 27th. However, the march and protest outside the governor’s mansion did not initially sway the Governor. On July 29, 1969, under a headline reading “Mansion Marches Futile: Whitcomb,” the Star reported the governor’s position to not meet with any protestors as long as they sought a confrontation at the mansion. The governor also claimed that a large number of protestors had come down from Chicago for the April 27 protest, and that he had scheduled a meeting the previous Wednesday with Rev. Brown, but that Brown cancelled after Whitcomb refused to allow him bring what Whitcomb termed “a large crowd” with him to the meeting.

However, under continuing pressure and heavy criticism of his response to the marches, on Thursday, July 31, Whitcomb consented to meet with Dr. Brown to discuss the protestors’ grievances. The meeting took place on August 1, 1969. Brown and a delegation presented their grievances which included low quality schools and housing, difficulty in obtaining jobs, and oppressive new laws. In response, Governor Whitcomb opined that the protestors had not familiarized themselves with what his administration had done for African Americans. When he asked his special assistant to detail the state’s negotiations with HUD, Rev. Brown interrupted the assistant, and stated “[w]e came hoping that you would at least hear our complaints, but knowing that you have had your mind made up. You cannot persuade a person against his will.” Brown closed the meeting with a suggestion of future protests: “We will have to use other methods to get the kind of pressure needed to get the things we want.” Brown continued to help lead the Civil Rights movement in Indianapolis and founded the Indianapolis Black Expo in 1970. Governor Whitcomb served his one term in office, and ran for senate in 1976, losing the Republican primary to Richard Lugar.

Note: A condensed version of this post will also be published in the upcoming Butler Tarkington Neighborhood Association newsletter.


Indianapolis News, July 11, 1969, July 12, 1969, July 28, 1969

Indianapolis Star, July 12, 1969, July 14, 1969, July 29, 1969

Indianapolis Recorder, July 12, 1969, July 16, 1969, August 2, 1969

Cole, Ryan, A Politician Who Was His Own Man: Edgar Whitcomb, R.I.P., Feb. 16. 2016.

Gould, Todd, Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, One People, Winter 1999, Volume 11, Number 1, pp. 53-55

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