Remembering the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and his influence on Robert F. Kennedy on the anniversary of his assassination (April 4, 1968).
Editor's Note: On this day, April 4, in 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennesse. His death inspired RFK to give one of his greatest speeches. On the anniversary of his death, the article below from Dermot McEvoy looks at the development of Kennedy's political career and how his attitude to civil rights and MLK changed over time.
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down in Memphis. A short time later, Senator Robert Francis Kennedy, running for the office of President of the United States of America, touched down in Indianapolis.
Despite warnings from the mayor and chief of police that he was in hostile territory, he immediately headed for the black ghetto. There, in 556 extemporaneous words, in maybe the best speech delivered in America since the Gettysburg Address, he told the crowd of the country’s loss.
“What we need in the United States,” said Kennedy, “is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”
“My favorite poet was Aeschylus,” he said. “He wrote: ‘In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’ ”
Sixty-three days later Robert Kennedy would be dead.
Forty-eight years later the U.S. is still presented with many of the problems Kennedy spoke about, but it’s almost impossible to imagine any of the candidates who ran for president in the 2016 election showing such compassion, let alone quote—or even pronounce—Aeschylus.
Bobby Kennedy had come a long way from being one of Senator Joe McCarthy’s hatchet men only fifteen years before. If there ever was a politician disguised as a riddle, it was Kennedy. Former Boston Globe journalist Larry Tye decided he had to decipher that riddle and "Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon" (Random House) is the result.
“I wrote about Bobby partly because he was a hero of mine growing up,” Tye told IrishCentral, “and I wanted to learn more about him and see if I’d been right in embracing him. As important, I pick my subjects for the same reason every biographer does: because their small and human story is a lens into a bigger, more cosmic one. In Bobby’s case, his transformation over his 20-year career lets us see how America was changing (for the better) from the Eisenhower era of the 1950s through the tumultuous 1960s. Nobody better reflected that change than Bobby and nobody was more instrumental in steering it.”
Tye never met Kennedy, but he had some important “ins” to the Kennedy family. “I did go to a small high school outside Boston with Bobby’s son David and his nephew Chris Lawford,” said Tye. “Bobby’s brother Ted was one of my best sources during my 15 years at the Boston Globe, and over the years I met others in the Kennedy clan, through work and play.”
Perhaps his biggest coup was getting Kennedy’s widow, Ethel, to talk to him. How did he pull that off? “I came along at the right time—when Ethel was sensing her mortality (she just turned 88) and, I think, was ready to talk. I had several friends who were friends of hers and vouched for me. And I was plain lucky.”
Most politicians, if they evolve politically, evolve from left to right—Ronald Reagan being a prime example, going from New Deal Democrat to Arch-Conservative. Kennedy, however, went the opposite direction, compounding his riddle.
“It’s one of several ways in which Bobby defied intuition and custom,” said Tye, “which he relished doing. Most people get more conservative as they age partly because they lose their idealism and reach, but Bobby got more idealistic the more he saw wrongs that needed righting and he reached ever-further in trying to change things that made him angry. Would that more politicians did that, and more of the rest of us.”
Of course, politicians we admire “evolve,” but politicians we despise are called “flip-floppers.” Why wasn’t Kennedy a flip-flopper?
“Something deeper was involved,” insists Tye. “Bobby, I am convinced, changed in ways that were deeply felt and painfully arrived at. He’d always been a balance between tough and tender, and the more he suffered—with the tragic death of two brothers and a sister, up-close encounters with poverty and pains, and the costs of a war he had strongly backed—the more the tender came to dominate. Another difference: Flip-floppers change in the direction of the prevailing political winds, whereas Bobby changed on issues like Vietnam before being anti-war was popular and when it could and did cost him his relationship with a very powerful president, Lyndon Johnson.”
Kennedy was a fairly devout Catholic, an Irish one at that. Did that have any bearing on his evolution?
“Any faith,” said Tye, “and especially Catholicism, can push one in either ideological direction, since there’s scriptural and clerical support for liberalism and conservatism. In Bobby’s case, he took practical and spiritual direction from his devotion to his faith and it was a central part of what drove and sustained him."
Kennedy liberal detractors always bring up Kennedy’s association with Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose tactics would add a new definition to the dictionary: “McCarthyism.” Yet Kennedy never abandoned him, even traveling to Wisconsin for his funeral in 1957. Looking back at both of their careers, they certainly were a political odd-couple.
“Bobby was firmly anti-Communist in the 1950s,” explained Tye, “and he felt that Senator McCarthy was one of the only public figures willing to stand up to the Reds. Bobby was devoted to his father, and Joe Kennedy was devoted to Joe McCarthy. And Bobby badly needed a mentor, and Joe McCarthy served that role for Bobby in a way that was real and made clear he was a friend as well as a boss.”
Of course, there was another character in this political ménage à trois who has just shot back into the news—Roy Cohn. It has recently been revealed that Cohn in the years before he died of AIDS, was a political mentor to none other than Donald J. Trump. Not surprising, as much as Kennedy admired McCarthy, he loathed Cohn.
“Bobby was jealous that Cohn was running McCarthy’s staff,” explained Tye, “while he was a junior staffer who Cohn treated like a go-fer. Bobby chose to blame Cohn for the McCarthy Committee’s excesses, which was right in that Cohn was mean and dogmatic and demagogic, but it let McCarthy—who, after all, was Cohn’s boss—off the hook far too easily. For his part, Cohn hated Bobby because he saw him as a spoiled rich kid, which he was, and because he knew Bobby got the job because McCarthy was beholden to rich Joe Kennedy, which he was.”
One of the great ironies of Kennedy’s political life was that he was bedeviled by two Senator McCarthys: Joe in the beginning and Gene at the end. IrishCentral asked Tye if he thought Kennedy would see the terrible irony in this mad juxtaposition?
“I do think he saw the irony, albeit reluctantly,” replied Tye. “He also must have bitten his lip when Lady Bird Johnson’s press secretary accurately quipped in 1968, ‘It took Bobby Kennedy seventeen years to come out against McCarthy, and then it was the wrong one.’ ”
Probably the best statement Tye made about the JFK/RFK relationship was: “Bobby was all Gaelic, bristling with energy and trusting his gut. If the Church had been their calling, Jack would have been pope, Bobby a parish priest.”
What, exactly, did Bobby get out of being the parish priest of the Democratic Party? “It was the place,” replied Tye, “at the grassroots, where Bobby felt he learned the most, contributed the most and felt most appreciated. Jack never pretended to like the grunt work and aspired to be president from the instant he was elected to Congress. Bobby had trouble imagining himself as a senator, then as president, although he was much more qualified—from having done his grunt work—than his older brother, who’d always been removed and pretentiously pope-like.”
Kennedy, as his brother’s Attorney General, gradually began to evolve from right-winger to lefty. As AG he was in charge of desegregating colleges in the south and the mayhem, violence, and murder made a deep impression on him.
The Cuban Missile Crisis also had a profound impact on him. Tye is extremely critical of Kennedy and his maneuverings during the crisis and some of the self-serving things he wrote in his book on the crisis.
“He and the world had come closer to a nuclear holocaust than it had at any time before or since,” says Tye, “and it sobered him as it did everyone. It also eventually tempered his hatred of Castro and resolve to depose him, but that took a bit more time. The sad thing is that Bobby felt the need, because of his political ambition and determination to whitewash Kennedy history, to embellish and whitewash his role in the crisis when he wrote about it in his book 'Thirteen Days.' He was an advocate of the dovish naval blockade, but only later; at first he was among the most militant of the hawks.”
RFK was so right about so many things: poverty, civil rights, apartheid in South Africa, Vietnam, and his amazing prediction that there would be a black president within 40 years. What does this out-of-the-box thinking tell you about him? And how come so many people—many so-called intellectuals—got so many of these things wrong?
“It tells me that he had the confidence to admit he’d screwed up,” says Tye, “which most intellectuals don’t. And he had the foresight to cut through the crap and see the essence of the situation, whether it was Vietnam or civil rights, but only the second time around, after he’d made mistakes and learned from them.”
After President Kennedy’s assassination, Bobby went into a depression in which he emerged a different man. Kennedy had a great love of children which was best expressed in a wonderful, heartfelt moment a month after JFK’s assassination.
Kennedy was visiting a school when a little boy yelled “Your brother’s dead!” The outburst stunned the onlookers, but Kennedy put them at ease when he told the little boy, “That’s all right. I have another brother.”
Kennedy’s emergence from his profound depression took just about a year, culminating in his bid for New York's US Senate seat.
“It was partly that his Senate campaign,” notes Tye, “made him see that he still had a role to play in the politics and policies of the nation and that the public responded to him as separate from and nearly equivalent to the beloved assassinated president. It also gave Bobby the most essential of cures for situational depression: time and distractions.”
After his election to the Senate Kennedy started championing the causes of the rural poor, the Chicanos, the blacks in city ghettos, and the forgotten whites. No one ever got elected in American politics by being a hero to these forgotten people, as we can see in present-day politicking. Why did he do it?
“Because,” says Tye, “he couldn’t not do it, the way he was moved by seeing starving kids in the Mississippi Delta, abused ones in the grape and lettuce fields of California, and forgotten ones—white as well as black—in Brooklyn and Queens and upstate New York. It’s also that he was crafting a new politics where those forgotten Americans—black, brown, and blue-collar white—would form a new, triumphant electoral coalition.”
Tye added, “Instead of following a straight line from conservative to liberal, he had skipped straight to revolutionary.”
A remarkable statement, but was Bobby Kennedy truly a “revolutionary”?
“In every sense of the word,” insists Tye. “He was willing to try new, untested, and unpopular solutions. He was as impatient as hell and ready to topple anyone who stood in his way. He was familiar with old-style politics and politicians and hated both. All that was apparent in his attitudes about everything from poverty to fighting the wrong wars. What we lost the night Bobby was killed was the tough liberal—or perhaps tender conservative—I’ve spent my life waiting and hoping for.”
Senator Kennedy concluded his speech that awful night in Indianapolis by saying: “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”
Today, on that very spot in Indianapolis, stands the Landmark for Peace Memorial, a remarkable sculpture that shows Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. reaching out for one another, perhaps contemplating giving each other a High-Five when their life’s work is finally accomplished.
Dermot McEvoy is the author of the "The 13th Apostle: A Novel of a Dublin Family, Michael Collins, and the Irish Uprising and Irish Miscellany" (Skyhorse Publishing). He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.dermotmcevoy.com. Follow The 13th Apostle on Facebook.
* Originally published in 2016.