For fifty years now, two political assassinations in 1968 have haunted America.
When assassins’ bullets annihilated both Dr. Martin Luther King and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy within a time span of scarcely three months (MLK was cut down in April, RFK in June of 1968), irreparable damage resulted to the nation’s psyche and soul.
A telling remark by Congressman John Lewis, a major figure in the history of the 1960s, rings true: “When these two young men were murdered, something died in all of us. We were robbed of part of our future.”
In different ways, across demographics, regarding everything from the Civil Rights crusade of the 1960s to the increasingly militant antiwar movement that dominated the news, as the Vietnam War continued its perennial agonies, the dual murders of MLK and RFK made 1968 a shattering, disorienting, tragic year.
In The Promise and the Dream: The Untold Story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, author David Margolick, an ace reporter and independent historian, whose decades of contributions to The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and other magazines and newspapers make for a stunning track record, sets out to do what no other biographer, scholar, or historical scribe has attempted—to ascertain how the unfolding destinies of King and Kennedy dovetailed throughout the 1960s.
Margolick succeeds at this challenging narrative quest. And “challenging” is too weak a word to describe what he faced. In short, the martyrdom of both men, brought about by their shared doom in the spring and summer of 1968, has created the illusion of partnership in the public imagination. Yet, the men hardly ever met.
We tend to think that MLK and RFK were always allies. Kindred spirits. Probably very much in contact with each other from the dawn of the 1960s (with its Freedom Rides and sit-ins and the March on Washington) to the latter part of that fractured epoch (when “We Shall Overcome” shifted to “Black Power!” and Vietnam became America’s ultimate fault line). The truth is far more complicated.
And to get at the truth, David Margolick uses to great advantage a linear, strict chronological order to his sequence of fourteen chapters. The shared demise of King and Kennedy in 1968 bookends the narrative, with devastating impact. The eyewitness testimonials quoted in the text are powerful, but there’s also the utterly stunning array of vivid, pulverizing photographs abundantly used in the book.
It’s a tribute to Margolick’s adroit skill as a reporter and his wide-ranging curiosity as a student of history that despite a dual biographical agenda about a story we all know ends in desolate grief, he succeeds at luring us to turn the pages avidly.
The reason for this is that in developing his 14 chapters, with inviting, vibrant titles like “History Would Keep Them Together,” “The Face of Courage,” “Ripple of Hope,” and “Change Would Come”, Margolick recapitulates the escalating tensions of America’s political, cultural, social, racial, and historical milestones from 1960 to 1968. Year after year, as one episode followed another, the omnipresent conflicts over integration, from lunch counters and bus depots to universities and urban neighborhoods, were always competing with other insurgent issues, ranging from war overseas to American society’s ruptures regarding the sexual revolution and the withering influences of religious institutions. It was a chaotic, incendiary time.
Less than one dozen times in that era of colossal confrontations, the paths of MLK and RFK crossed. They rarely saw each other in person. Phone calls were rare.
And yet, far removed from each other as they were, each man evolved throughout the 1960s in ways that somehow generated a sense of common ground, a notion of kinship, a subtle yet increasingly palpable yearning to build a new kind of nation.
The key element that incrementally bonded the works and days of Dr. King and Sen. Kennedy boiled down to their shared conviction that America’s economic injustices were part and parcel of all other problems. A shared sympathy for the poor caused both men to stress more and more (from the mid-1960s to their final days in 1968) that crises—from racism in American cities to foreign policy brutalities all over the world—had to be seen as problems rooted in capitalism’s corruptions, and failures.
Wading deeply into topics and priorities they were often advised to avoid, both King and Kennedy, especially as 1966 gave way to the mayhem of 1967-68, relentlessly spoke out, vehemently addressing not just economic abuses suffered by poor urban blacks, but also the plight of desperate rural whites, working-class voters, remote Native Americans and the endlessly exploited Hispanics throughout North America.
RFK’s alignment with Cesar Chavez is significantly highlighted. So are the combined priorities and allied demographics that Dr. King attempted to galvanize for his 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, which was intended to be a massive coalition of America’s poor and disenfranchised (of all races and backgrounds), pitching camp at the same locale where King’s “I Have a Dream” speech had offered a day of hope in 1963.
Time after time, by 1968, both King and Kennedy were connecting the dots. Their final speeches, as Fate would have it, stressed overtly that economic disparities had to be overcome if ever America’s citizenry were ever to enjoy anything like equality.
Then: Both men were murdered within 62 days of each other. To claim that losing them in 1968 was like “the death of hope” is no exaggeration.
Now, a half-century later, America’s embroiled in so many newly-conflicted forms of political and historical distress that only the word “surreal” seems apt for our times. And what about the momentous year 1968? The calendar does not lie. Today, the year 1968 is as long ago as the year 1918 was, as the tragedies of ’68 accumulated.
Dr. King and Robert F. Kennedy are both enshrined as icons, but now more than ever their latter-day devotion to economic reforms and racial reconciliation is at odds with an America that seems to be spiraling toward—who knows what’s next?
In addition to David Margolick’s majestic text (he makes excellent use of quotations from a staggering variety of sources) and the many dozens of photographs which illustrate this book, The Promise and the Dream benefits greatly from remarks contributed by Andrew Young, one of Dr. King’s most stalwart colleagues.
Mr. Young defines the MLK/RFK dynamic as a “distant camaraderie . . . a spiritual brotherhood [that] leaped across the widest chasms of our time—a bridge across lines of race, class, and geography which nevertheless led them to a common, tragic destiny. If there is an afterlife . . . and I have no doubt there is, I am sure they are together—finally able to share the much-denied love that could never be fulfilled in a world such as ours.”
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