Book excerpt: The untold story of MLK and RFK

On April 4, 1968, a single gunshot killed civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. on a motel balcony in Memphis. On June 5 of that same year, Senator Robert F. Kennedy — brother of assassinated President John F. Kennedy, the former U.S. Attorney General and a presidential candidate — was fatally shot at a Los Angeles hotel after winning California’s Democratic primary. In this excerpt from “The Promise and the Dream: The Untold Story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy,” David Margolick examines the relationship between the two men who shaped the era’s struggle for civil rights in America.

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Rose Garden, June 22, 1963. Abbie Rowe/JFK Presidential Library and Museum/via REUTERS


Back they went to Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel.

Could the grieving disciples of Martin Luther King, Jr., have possibly chosen a grimmer spot to reconvene — the spot where he’d been murdered only a few hours earlier, where his blood still stained the cement on the balcony outside? And yet when they left the hospital in Memphis where King had died on the evening of April 4, 1968, what better place was there to mourn him than where he’d spent much of his last day on earth?

Gathered there, with King’s personal effects nearby — his small attaché case, a crumpled white shirt, a can of Hidden Magic hairspray, his Bible, a half-filled Styrofoam coffee cup, a pair of glass tumblers, and the remnants of a dessert — Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, and the others grappled with the catastrophe that had just befallen them. What would now happen to their movement? Who could take King’s place? What if his murder was only the first of a series that was still under way? Who among them would be next? And how could they help stop the rioting that had broken out in ghettos across America — the violent antithesis of everything for which King had stood?

But the same nineteen-inch Philco Starlite television set that beamed scenes of America aflame that night also brought some consolation, from Indianapolis, where Senator Robert F. Kennedy had spoken shortly after King had been declared dead. Huddled against the cold in his big brother’s old overcoat, he told a stunned and edgy crowd in the city’s most dangerous neighborhood that King had just been killed, then pleaded for calm and brotherhood, reminding everyone — as if anyone could not have known — that someone he’d loved had also been killed, and also by a white man. And unlike so many other cities that night, Indianapolis had stayed calm.

“We’d wanted to get on television and tell people not to fight, not to burn down the cities,” recalled Andrew Young. “We were trying to get the message out to people, ‘This is not what Dr. King would have you doing.’ But the press didn’t want to talk to us. They were right there at the hospital, and all they wanted to do was talk about the autopsy. Or they were going around chasing the kids with the firebombs, trying to interview them. It was almost like they were trying to provoke a riot.

“We were saying, ‘Look, Dr. King has gone. The important thing now is for us to keep his work going, and people are out in the streets now doing things that he wouldn’t want them to do.’ They weren’t interested in that. Bobby Kennedy’s was the only voice we identified with that night. We were grateful he was out there.”

He almost hadn’t been. Kennedy’s most senior advisers, the ones running his fledgling presidential campaign, had urged him to cancel the event: doing anything political on such a night would look bad, and going into the ghetto was just too dangerous. (Just be sure that in any statement he put out, they counseled, he not suggest he’d been too afraid to speak.) So had the mayor of Indianapolis, Richard Lugar, a lifelong resident who’d never set foot around 17th and Broadway, where a couple thousand people, nearly all of them black, had already gathered. So had the Indianapolis police. So had the customarily fearless Ethel Kennedy, who’d gone back to the hotel, praying in the back seat every minute en route.

Even Kennedy might have had second thoughts. While his relationship with King had slowly improved from contentious to careful to respectful over the eight years they’d known each other, and their causes had come increasingly to overlap, the two men had never been close: the racial and cultural divide between them had simply been too broad. They’d become allies, but never had they been friends. Why would Kennedy, of all people, subject himself to such a risk?

And yet, improbably, Bobby Kennedy, a near-total stranger to black America only ten years earlier, felt more at home in it now than any other white politician in America — and more welcome, and comfortable, there than he would have in ostensibly safer and more “respectable” places. When the moment came, he knew instantly what he wanted, and needed, and had promised, to do. So when, shortly after he’d landed in Indianapolis, police officials reiterated their warning, he brushed it aside. “My family and I could lay down in the street there and they wouldn’t bother me,” he told them with a confidence bordering on bravado that would have been unimaginable from just about any other white person in America. “If they would bother you, you’re the one with the problem.” That everyone urged him to stay away was, for him, only another reason to go.

The story of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy is hard to tell because they left so few fragments of it behind. For two such famous men whose lives and fates were so closely intertwined, there was only a scant paper trail. Lots of what happened between them happened privately, mostly in unrecorded phone calls, beyond the reach of journalists and historians. They evidently wanted it that way. And then, in the last few years of their lives, it trailed off almost entirely into telepathy.

As often as they came to appear together posthumously — in the memorial drawings, photographs, tapestries, and crockery, usually in triptychs with John F. Kennedy, found largely in black homes — there are few photographs of the two, most of them snapshots or group pictures. In none of them can they be seen engaging — talking to each other, smiling at each other, shaking each other’s hand…

They were roughly the same age — Kennedy barely three years older. Both had larger-than-life, tyrannical fathers. Both were deeply religious. Both were charismatic. Both were ever in a hurry, for each knew about the capriciousness and brevity of life. But their differences — not just in race and class but in geographic origins, temperament, power, and position — were much more dramatic…

In one sense, Kennedy’s journey had been shorter: he’d been born into wealth and fame and never strayed far from it, while King had been born obscure and became one of the most famous people in the world. In another, Kennedy’s path was far longer. Early in his career, he’d been better known for his hatred than his love…

The term for him was “ruthless,” and rarely, if ever, has a single word attached itself to anyone so tenaciously. It popped up so often — in virtually every profile — that it became a running joke: he’d call himself “Senator Ruthless” or sign his notes that way. People were forever diagnosing the many, many moments when Robert Kennedy changed out of that. Perhaps that meant he never really did, or had and then relapsed. By the end, though, there was little doubt that he was profoundly altered…

King, by contrast, didn’t so much change as deepen. Though his faith occasionally faltered, there were few epiphanies. He just grew more famous, ambitious, revered and inspiring, loathed and threatening, angry, bitter, radical, desperate.

As elusive as it was, King’s relationship with Bobby Kennedy was much deeper, more personal, and more intricate than his relationship with Jack, and not just because it lasted twice as long. Though there were some exceptions — like the time in June 1963 when John Kennedy escorted King through the Rose Garden and warned him he was under surveillance, a gesture for which King was profoundly grateful — Attorney General Robert Kennedy was usually his point of contact. That meant three years of tense telephone standoffs, telegrammed pleas for protection, stiff, formal, typewritten complaints, and, occasionally, compliments.

For both Kennedys, King meant trouble — a distraction from the things, like managing the Cold War or the American economy, they’d come to Washington to do. “Until the end of 1963, every big demonstration or turmoil that Martin King led was a problem for the president, so that affected the way Bob Kennedy would look at it,” Robert Kennedy’s key deputy at the Justice Department, Burke Marshall, later said.

It was Robert Kennedy who had helped spring King from jail in Georgia; saved his life (or so he thought) when King huddled in the basement as an angry mob besieged a Montgomery, Alabama, church; pleaded with him to halt the Freedom Rides; and, when King refused to drop two aides with past communist ties, directed that his telephone be tapped. Theirs was an uneven relationship, and for King, a slightly degrading one: he was the black man invariably asking for things, and Kennedy the white man doling them out, but only when his brother’s political interests permitted. King was the one to say “please” and “thank you.”

King was not without his powers — he’d arguably gotten John Kennedy elected, and he was the custodian of a large chunk of his legacy. And while he hectored, lectured, criticized, and exasperated Robert Kennedy, he also helped educate him. When they’d met, Kennedy had little experience with, or interest in, or understanding of, or empathy for blacks. King helped coax out Bobby Kennedy’s better angels, especially with the 1963 protests in Birmingham that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But a little boy with a distended belly sitting on the dirt floor of a shack in the Mississippi delta may have done more to change Robert Kennedy than Martin Luther King ever did.

The ostensibly spiritual King approached Bobby Kennedy with a hardheadedness that the pragmatic Kennedy would have admired. He had no illusion about Kennedy’s instincts, which were viewed initially by the skeptical civil rights community as authoritarian, pragmatic, and not especially sympathetic. But it was Robert Kennedy with whom he knew he’d have to deal, and he ordered his colleagues, most notably Harry Belafonte, to go find Kennedy’s moral center, and not return until they had.

Following President Kennedy’s assassination, much changed between the two. As a United States senator, Kennedy no longer lorded over King and had fewer plums to dispense. He was freer to identify with King, or to distance himself from him, and did both. And King had fewer favors to ask.

So, over the last four years of their truncated lives, they barely saw each other — maybe only once: at hearings on urban poverty before a committee on which Kennedy sat. Their various underlings sometimes communicated, but that was largely it; even those surrogates didn’t know how often, if ever, they got together, or spoke in private. No longer compelled to deal with each other, they didn’t. Inveterately social and intellectually adventurous, Kennedy probably invited more blacks to his home — the black essayist and novelist James Baldwin among them — than any white politician of his era, but Martin Luther King was never among them… And yet, their preoccupations and goals — ending the war in Vietnam; tackling racial discrimination in the United States, South Africa, and elsewhere; fighting poverty — increasingly overlapped…

When, in 1966, Kennedy visited Chief Albert Luthuli, the South African civil rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner living in internal exile, he is thought to have delivered a letter from King. After Kennedy toured the poverty-stricken Mississippi delta, King praised him. While Lyndon Johnson remained mum, Kennedy congratulated King for winning the Nobel Peace Prize. King had moved his activism up north to Chicago, in part, at Kennedy’s urging. Only three weeks before his flight to Indianapolis, Kennedy vied for King’s endorsement as he ran for president.

But that was an exception — a bow to the polyglot politics of California, which was to hold its presidential primary on June 4, 1968. Politically, Kennedy typically took care not to cozy up to King, [whose] views on Vietnam — he favored immediate withdrawal — were far too extreme for Kennedy to embrace, as was his larger critique of American foreign policy and culture…

Stylistically, Kennedy seemed to prefer the company of grittier black leaders, like the ones who’d organized the rally for him in Indianapolis. Kennedy might have been bitter over King’s sex-laced wisecracks about his late brother and his wife, overheard and recorded and then gleefully transmitted to him by Hoover’s FBI. But guilt too, may have been a barrier…

For his part, King never got in bed with politicians, even the most promising, and sympathetic: invariably, they’d disappoint him. Unless he kept them guessing, and bidding for his support, they’d take him for granted. “Sometimes you can’t dine with the president and represent vigorously black people in America,” King once said…

Then there was always the question of just how independent Bobby Kennedy really was. “We considered him our number one ally but we also knew that Hoover had more on him than he had on us and we never knew when he’d try to pull the string,” said Andrew Young. “I don’t know what it was, but they just were not pals,” said a longtime Kennedy aide, Peter Edelman. “They were shadow-boxing a lot of the time,” recalled William vanden Heuvel, a key Kennedy aide who was close to King as well. “Wary” is the word most frequently invoked to describe them. “They were friends, and didn’t even know that they were friends,” said U.S. Representative John Lewis, who worked with them both…

King would probably not have endorsed Kennedy in 1968 — he never endorsed anyone — but would have made it clear Kennedy was his choice. In other ways, he was moving toward Kennedy, like in the mass protest he was planning in Washington when he was killed…

“What do I say?” Kennedy had asked his press secretary, Frank Mankiewicz, on the flight into Indianapolis that night [of King’s murder.] Should he use what his speechwriters had hastily prepared for him, or go with his gut, even though he had never been the gifted orator his brother was, and rarely spoke extemporaneously, and had never talked of King publicly before? In fact, as was often true when Kennedy asked such questions, he already had his answer.

Standing on the back of a flatbed truck at 17th and Broadway, he spoke for seven minutes. He held some notes, but after glancing at them at the beginning, he never referred to them again. As moving as his speech that night in cold and drizzly Indianapolis had been, it elicited little commentary afterward: it came too late for the morning papers, and, like King’s equally memorable remarks the night before — his last speech, the one about having been to the mountaintop — it was lost in the enormity of the assassination. But in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, Kennedy’s words were duly noted…

Kennedy could never replace King. But to his disciples back at the Lorraine Motel that night, and throughout the black community, he had picked up his torch. In him, everyone in that room at that grim moment seemed to agree, resided pretty much all of whatever hope remained. There was but one question about that torch: how long Bobby Kennedy would get to hold it. “I don’t know, I almost feel like somebody said, ‘He’s probably going to be next,’ ” Young later recalled. “I can’t remember that. But that was the feeling that many of us had.”

About the Author

From: “The Promise and the Dream,” by David Margolick. Copyright © 2018 David Margolick. A Lawrence Schiller book published by RosettaBooks. Publication date: April 3, 2018.

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