As riots erupted and smoke billowed from black neighborhoods within the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination, Robert F. Kennedy met with black activists, politicians and celebrities in a resort suite “to tamp issues down and divine what ought to come subsequent,” writes David Margolick in “The Promise and the Dream: The Untold Story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.” On this excerpt, Margolick examines Kennedy’s response to the killing — and his perception that he too would die at an murderer’s hand.
THERE WERE NO WORDS
The American Electra jet that Robert Kennedy organized for Coretta Scott King lifted off in Atlanta at 9:15 on the morning of April 5. It will land in Memphis slightly greater than an hour later. She didn’t get off the plane. She saved her composure because the casket carrying her husband was faraway from the hearse however collapsed on the shoulder of a companion because it was lifted up for Martin Luther King’s last journey dwelling. An unidentified SCLC official in Atlanta was requested who King’s pallbearers can be. “Each black man on this nation,” he replied.
Whereas Coretta King made her strategy to Tennessee, Kennedy sat down along with his previous pal Jack Paar in a tv studio in Indianapolis. Again when the wall between tv personalities and politics was a bit decrease, Paar was out there for partisan functions — on this occasion, for the type of question-and-answer session during which, Kennedy’s admen nonetheless believed, the candidate was most interesting. They might edit the dialog into small bits and use them in commercials. Calibrating his message to conservative Indiana, Kennedy talked extra with Paar about regulation and order than civil rights, and extra about nationwide safety than both. Requested to establish his best single accomplishment as legal professional common, Kennedy veered off into the Cuba Missile Disaster and the way he’d helped save the planet. Each time Paar tried to get him to speak about King, Kennedy put him off. Even with King gone, Kennedy was protecting his distance.
Kennedy then headed to Cleveland for his beforehand scheduled lunchtime speech to the Cleveland Metropolis Membership. Each en route and afterward, he averted any look of politicking: the a whole lot of individuals chanting “We would like Kennedy!” outdoors the resort the place he was to talk needed to content material themselves with a wave from an upstairs window.
Kennedy’s speechwriters should have understood that nobody would need something long-winded; he spoke solely a few minutes longer than he simply had in Indianapolis. Within the aftermath of each the taking pictures and the violence that adopted, he made one other plea for brotherhood and a denunciation of violence, which he outlined much more broadly than ordinary. Brutality, he mentioned, got here not simply from snipers, mobs, and gangs, however from lawless regulation enforcement, Hollywood, armies killing harmless civilians in far-off lands, and apathetic and detached bureaucracies.
“There’s one other type of violence, slower however simply as lethal, harmful because the shot or the bomb within the night time. That is the violence of establishments, indifference and inaction and gradual decay. That is the violence that afflicts the poor, that toxins relations between males as a result of their pores and skin has completely different colours. It is a gradual destruction of a kid by starvation, and faculties with out books and houses with out warmth within the winter. That is the breaking of a person’s spirit by denying him the possibility to face as a father and as a person amongst different males. And this, too, afflicts us all.”
3 times, Kennedy remarked on how quick life was, a theme he had by no means dwelt on earlier than. He additionally made the interesting however ridiculous declare that assassinations have been futile. “No martyr’s trigger has ever been stilled by his murderer’s bullet,” he mentioned. Walinsky [a former Kennedy aide] later known as it extra “Sunday college sermon” than an appraisal of human historical past. And William F. Buckley later described it as a plea from Kennedy to his personal murderer, “whose identify neither he nor anybody else knew, however whose existence he had steadily conjectured.”
At a time when the identify of Martin Luther King was on everybody’s lips, Kennedy by no means talked about it that day. It’s little question true that, because the Village Voice’s Jack Newfield was to put in writing, King’s demise gave Kennedy the aim his candidacy had misplaced with Lyndon Johnson’s withdrawal. His can be a broadened model of King’s personal combat for the disenfranchised. However King’s identify would not often be invoked within the course of, starting, unusually, even earlier than he’d been buried.
Thus, the scholars in Mrs. Zelda Garfinkel’s American historical past class at Julia Richman Excessive Faculty in Manhattan, who’d reminded Kennedy that legal guidelines serving to the poor and oppressed can be a becoming memorial to King, heard extra from him on the topic than voters over the subsequent couple of months. “Martin Luther King Jr. represented one of the best in our nation,” he wrote them again. “Dr. King lived and died not just for the Negro however for all Individuals — and, particularly, for the youth of our nation.” The few feedback Kennedy did make on King have been personal and have been extra concerning the FBI. “It’s very attention-grabbing that they’ll’t discover the killer of Martin Luther King, however they’ll observe down some 22-year-old who might need burned his draft card,” he informed Pete Hamill at one level.
Others, although, linked the 2 males in ways in which weren’t all the time obvious. It was on a Wednesday — trash assortment day in Pasadena — shortly after King was killed sanitation man named Alvin Clark encountered Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, a younger Palestinian-born man whose home was on Clark’s route. Over the previous three years, the pair had grow to be pleasant; Sirhan would typically convey Clark espresso or a delicate drink and one thing to eat throughout pickups. “He was upset concerning the demise of Martin Luther King,” Clark later testified. “He says, ‘What do you assume the Negro individuals are going to do about it?’ and I says, ‘What can we do about it? There wasn’t however one particular person concerned.’” Sirhan then requested him concerning the California main, now solely a few months away. “I informed him I used to be going to vote for Kennedy,” Clark recalled, “and Sirhan mentioned, ‘What are you going to vote for that son of a bitch for? As a result of I’m planning on taking pictures him.’”
“You’d be killing among the finest males within the nation,” Clark replied, noting how Kennedy had organized to have King’s physique introduced again to Atlanta. He’d simply accomplished that for “publicity,” Sirhan replied. He didn’t say why it was he hated Kennedy sufficient to need to kill him.
Kennedy returned to Washington proper after his Cleveland speech. The view from the air as they approached Nationwide Airport was cataclysmic; smoke was billowing out of the black neighborhoods. Kennedy needed to go on to the place the rioting was going down to try to cease it. “I feel I can do one thing with these individuals,” he saved saying as his aides tried to dissuade him. “He lastly went dwelling. Very reluctantly,” the speechwriter John Bartlow Martin, who was with Kennedy, recalled.
However the subsequent day, Palm Sunday, Kennedy spoke briefly from the pulpit of Washington’s New Bethel Baptist Church, within the midst of the place the turmoil had taken place. Then, with Ethel however with out bodyguards, he walked twenty-two blocks by way of the realm, the place the rubble smoldered and the scent of tear gasoline nonetheless hung heavy within the air. (He’d campaigned right here solely 5 days earlier — he and Rosey Grier had sung “Spanish Harlem” collectively.) Marion Barry, then a neighborhood activist and later mayor of Washington, seen Kennedy as an invader. “What in hell is he doing right here?” he requested. However neighborhood residents, particularly youngsters, fell in line behind him. For a part of the stroll, he held a small lady’s hand.
“There was not one of the grabbing, pushing and mauling that has grow to be part of the Senator’s marketing campaign excursions,” wrote R. W. Apple within the New York Occasions. “Each he and the onlookers have been subdued as he greeted weary policemen, shook arms with troopers, and poked his head into burned-out outlets.” Few residents there that day would have endorsed Stokely Carmichael’s cost that by dragging his toes on civil rights, Bobby Kennedy had “pulled that set off simply in addition to anyone else.”
The subsequent day, Robert and Ethel Kennedy flew to Atlanta for King’s funeral. They visited Coretta King at her dwelling, sitting down for a time together with her in her bed room. He informed her that if it meant one thing to her, he would encourage Jacqueline Kennedy to attend the funeral, and he did, and he or she did. And, as numerous SCLC officers — Andrew Younger, James Bevel, and Hosea Williams amongst them — and members of the King household sat on the mattress or the ground, he stopped by to see Daddy King in his room on the Hyatt Resort, the place the household later acquired individuals.
“Robert Kennedy got here in by himself,” Andrew Younger recalled. “And he actually simply poured his coronary heart out about his brother and our brother. He even talked about that he misplaced his first brother. It was not like he knew what he was saying, he simply began type of like he wasn’t even speaking to us, understanding what we have been going by way of, and remembering what he went by way of. It wasn’t what he mentioned; it was the truth that he was there, saying something, and his being there, and his whole identification. And it made us establish with him.”
Younger recalled Daddy King, is his gown and pajamas, sitting up in mattress and declaring many times, “Hate is just too nice a burden to bear. I cannot let anyone make me hate.” At one other level that night, John Lewis accompanied Robert and Ethel Kennedy to see the physique of Martin Luther King, mendacity in an open casket by the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church. Kennedy crossed himself, and mentioned nothing.
Properly into the night time, Kennedy held a collection of conferences with black activists, politicians, and celebrities within the suite subsequent door to his resort room, trying to tamp issues down and divine what ought to come subsequent. The periods degenerated at instances into internecine posturing and one-upmanship — “It is a lot of shit!” Invoice Cosby mentioned at one level — and anger at Kennedy himself, both for being too political (why was he there?) or, as a result of he insisted he’d come principally to pay attention (for not being political sufficient). Robert Kennedy was as soon as once more the legal professional common, or maybe he was already the president of america. Younger later mentioned he appeared extra delicate to the scenario than the black leaders themselves. “I assume the factor that saved us going was that possibly Bobby Kennedy would provide you with some concepts for the nation,” Hosea Williams later mentioned. “I bear in mind telling him he had an opportunity to be a prophet. However prophets get shot.” A few instances, Ethel got here in to fetch her husband. “Is he ever going to get to mattress?” she requested. Finally, he did. “On the finish, and it was getting very late, he mentioned, ‘We’ve acquired to rise up and go bury our chief,’ “ John Lewis recalled.