A Story That Never Quite Was?

By David M. Alpern
David Margolick David Margolick Photo

“The Promise and the Dream”
David Margolick
Rosetta Books, $30

In his opening author’s note, David Margolick concedes that Kathleen Kennedy Townsend thought a book on “The Untold Story of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy” was a bad idea. “Just because two people live in the same time, and are engaged in two different worlds, and talk to each other ten times during the course of their lives or twenty times, does not make a book,” said Kennedy’s eldest child. 

Not necessarily. In fact, Mr. Margolick amply demonstrates in “The Promise and the Dream” how the “different worlds” in which King and Kennedy engaged — civil rights and politics — inevitably overlapped in the course of lives both prematurely shortened by assassins’ bullets in the watershed year of 1968. 

With few direct communications, they nevertheless followed increasingly parallel moral and political paths to the same struggle for America’s black, poor, and powerless as the Vietnam War strained and drained the nation’s attention, blood, and treasure.

In an amalgam of investigation, insight, speculation, and imagination, Mr. Margolick, an ex-New York Times reporter, provides never-published or long-forgotten details of each man’s journey that seem exceptionally resonant as we mark their legacies 50 years on — and find ourselves still facing chasms of race, wealth, influence, and respect.

“Though not colleagues, they were compatriots,” the historian Douglas Brinkley says in his foreword, “bound by the clarity and righteousness of their vision and the immense and enduring sense of hope they each came to embody.”

But the book also explores the shifting emotions that swirled between the two men in the turbulent 1960s, ranging from suspicion and annoyance to disappointment and anger, but ending in mutual respect and support. 

Mr. Margolick probably goes too far in echoing Kennedy loyalists that King’s 1963 March on Washington was “also in many ways a Robert Kennedy production” because R.F.K. aides at the Justice Department assured the presence of porta-potties, the absence of police dogs, and such. He seems more correct in tracing King’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign there in large part to Bobby. “Tell Dr. King to bring the poor to Washington,” he told an intermediary, so the unpleasantness of widespread disobedience might move Congress to act.

Never really friends, all who knew them agree, King came to “admire Kennedy more and more,” Mr. Margolick writes, and quotes Andrew Young, a top M.L.K. aide: “He was extremely impressed with his capacity to learn, to grow, and to deal creatively in any given situation . . . a man of both moral courage and a keen sense of political timing.” 

Ever defensive of his brother Jack’s image as candidate and president, Bobby was dubious at first about King and his activism. When informed of J.F.K.’s famous campaign call to a pregnant Coretta King when Martin was jailed in Georgia, Robert turned “predictably apoplectic,” fulminating that the episode could cost J.F.K. the South and the election of 1960, Mr. Margolick recounts. 

But then, as he tells it, the injustice of the sentence (for violation of parole from a minor driving conviction), not to mention the potential for black votes, prompted R.F.K. to call a local judge to get M.L.K. released. In states like Illinois, New Jersey, Michigan, South Carolina, and Delaware, black votes were probably decisive, the author concludes, whether or not the “ruthless” R.F.K. of Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare era had undergone a real change of heart — yet.

“There are those moments when the politically expedient is the morally wise,” King judged.

Bobby was still defensive in 1963. “So you’re down here for that old black fairy’s anti-Kennedy demonstration?” he asked the diplomat Marietta Tree, referring to Bayard Rustin, principal organizer of King’s March on Washington. 

He called King himself “not a serious person. If the country knew what we know about King’s goings on, he’d be finished,” Mr. Margolick recounts.

That’s a far cry from Kennedy’s virtually impromptu eulogy before a largely black Indianapolis crowd the night King was killed in Memphis: “Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort.”

To many of King’s disciples back at the Lorraine Motel, and throughout the black community, Mr. Margolick argues, Kennedy’s call for King-like nonviolence meant he had picked up the torch. 

“The amazing thing to us,” Young later recalled, “was that the crowd listened. He reached them.” And Indianapolis avoided the flames that flared in more than 100 U.S. cities.

Even before King and Kennedy began sharing views and goals, Mr. Margolick notes, they had a number of other things in common: roughly the same age (R.F.K. barely three years older), larger-than-life fathers, deep religious faith, obvious charisma, high expectations, and sharp criticism, each of them moving too fast for some, not fast enough for others.

J. Edgar Hoover, the F.B.I. boss, also hated them both. And after the J.F.K. assassination, following decades of black lynchings, both men shared a sense of impending doom. 

Kennedy, all agreed, was “educable,” interested in learning what he did not know. What I recall about interviewing him was that for every question I had, whatever the subject, he had one in return — about the politics of New York that, as its senator, he’d quickly have to master.

Mr. Margolick spotlights a May 1963 meeting R.F.K. arranged, through the writer James Baldwin, with other black intellectuals, V.I.P.s, and leaders more mainstream than King: the singer and activist Harry Belafonte, the sociologist Kenneth Clark (cited in the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling), the playwright Lorraine Hansberry (“A Raisin in the Sun”), the singer Lena Horne. 

“He had called the meeting in hopes of persuading us that he and his brother were doing all that could be done,” Horne later wrote. “The funny thing was that no one there disputed that. It was just that it did not seem enough.”

There were calls for the kind of grand gestures that Kennedy loathed. “Bobby kept saying ‘No. This would be senseless. This would be phony,’ ” Clark recalled. “And occasionally coming back and saying . . . well, implying . . . that we were ungrateful; that we were insatiable, et cetera.” While Kennedy and Baldwin had occasionally met before, they never spoke again.

But, as Mr. Margolick tells it, after the sickening TV coverage of black kids versus cops, dogs, and fire hoses in Birmingham (and King’s famous letter from jail there), Bobby helped push his brother to make a historic June TV address to the nation on civil rights. 

“We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” the president declared. “It is as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the Constitution . . . whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.”

“The strongest civil rights speech made by any president, Lincoln included,” James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality called it. And black V.I.P.s who’d been so critical at the May meeting heard J.F.K.’s words reflect much of the anger and agenda aimed at R.F.K. “I think we penetrated,” Hansberry said.

Medgar Evers, the Mississippi field secretary for the N.A.A.C.P., was fatally shot outside his home in Jackson the very next day. And Bobby soon became the greatest champion of his brother’s new civil rights bill before the Senate committees considering it, Mr. Margolick writes, though it would take J.F.K.’s assassination to give Lyndon Johnson as president the emotional leverage to pass it.

Without J.F.K., the glue that held Bobby and Martin together gradually loosened, we are told; they saw each other only a handful of times thereafter, shared more than a few words only once, and exchanged but a few letters of stilted support for each other.

With Bobby in what Jimmy Wechsler of the old, liberal New York Post called a “tragic trance,” Hoover stepped up surveillance of King and devised a score of plans for “neutralizing” him “as an effective Negro leader.” 

At one point, Mr. Margolick suggests, R.F.K. may have rationalized taps on King as a way to prove that, despite close advisers with Communist ties, King was not leading his marchers to the Kremlin’s tune.

Some surveillance material was forwarded to Kennedy as attorney general, some not. Was he offended by King’s sexual adventurism? Some in the know thought so. Adam Walinsky, a longtime aide, disagreed: “Do you really think any Kennedy male was uneasy about somebody getting laid?”

The death of President Kennedy also liberated R.F.K., as Mr. Margolick sees it. No longer responsible for protecting his brother’s back, adored as J.F.K.’s living image, fearing he himself had already peaked — and so not fearing criticism — Robert could choose his own future and his own fights, increasingly for the marginalized, ultimately for the Senate and the presidency.

King, with his Time cover and Nobel Peace Prize, reached perhaps the peak of his power in Selma, Ala., Mr. Margolick maintains, with whites and blacks from across the country joining the action. 

But as he expanded his reach and his agenda — to the North, to poverty afflicting both whites and blacks, and to the war that was killing both — King also invited his greatest opposition: from more radical black activists, from mainstream black leaders and white donors, and from the racist right. The Times updated his standing obituary.

Mr. Margolick connects the M.L.K. and subsequent R.F.K. assassinations, reminding us about a Pasadena, Calif., trash collector named Alvin Clark who later testified that a young Palestinian on his route “was upset about the death of Martin Luther King,” called R.F.K. “that son of a bitch,” and declared “I’m planning on shooting him.” His name was Sirhan Sirhan. And, of course, he did.

The book does not deal with continuing questions about that assassination, including an apparent bullet wound in the back of R.F.K.’s head — though Sirhan was in front of him — and indications that 13 shots were fired — though Sirhan’s gun held only eight rounds. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. recently said the case should be reopened.

Mr. Margolick concludes with speculation on where his two subjects, had both lived, might have taken us — together or at least in tandem. But given what he concedes is our “perpetually divided country,” there’s no guarantee we would not sooner or later face the same morass we do today.

David Margolick, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, has a house in Noyac.

David M. Alpern ran the “Newsweek On Air” and “For Your Ears Only” radio shows for more than 30 years, hosted weekly podcasts for World Policy Journal, and now records news stories for the visually impaired at gatewave.org from his house in Sag Harbor.

In the years following J.F.K.’s assassination, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King rarely spoke; Andrew Young, right, proved to be a critical link between them. Bob Fitch/the Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Library
Robert Kennedy conferred with his aide Frank Mankiewicz en route to Indianapolis after hearing that Martin Luther King had been shot. Lawrence Schiller/Premium Archive/Getty Images