Connecting Two Lions - Martin Luther King and Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy

Research provided by Dr. Diane Turner, Curator of the Charles L. Blockson Collection and
V. Chapman-Smith, Catto Memorial Fund Vice President


In America's shared memory, we often think about Martin Luther King and Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy together in a common cause for civil rights. However, we forget that:

for most of their public lives, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were hardly allies, let alone friends. The dividing line was too thick, one the heir of Irish-American royalty, the other the agitator for civil rights in the Deep South. And there is scant record of their lives touching."
(David Freelander, Daily Beast, February 17, 2018).

However, through the events of history, these two men are tied together, including through the commemoration of their assassinations. Their assassinations occurred almost exactly two months apart.

The linking of these two began in print with Hugh Hefner's tribute issue to King and Kennedy in Playboy in January 1969. This Playboy issue contained a symposium: The Decent Society in which eleven contributors, among them New York Mayor John Lindsay, created a blueprint for change throughout every important aspect of American life, and was a memoriam for MLK & RFK. The issue also featured King's last published essay, "A Testament of Hope".

Most Americans tend to view MLK's I Have a Dream Speech, on the National Mall as his greatest and most significant speech about America and race. However, it is through the lens of King's last published essay and his "Other America" speech, which he gave on his "Freedom tour" in 1967-68 before his death, that the intersection between RFK and MLK is evident.

"This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies; and culture and education for their minds; and freedom and human dignity for their spirits..But tragically and unfortunately, there is another America..In this America millions of work-starved men walk the streets daily in search for jobs that do not exist.. .In this America people are poor by the millions.Many people of various backgrounds live in this other America. Some are Mexican-Americans, some are Puerto Ricans, some are Indians, some happen to be from other groups. Millions of them are Appalachian whites. But probably the largest group in this other America . . . is the American Negro."
- The Other America, Speech by MLK Jr, April 14, 1967

In his last essay published in Playboy Magazine, January 1969, "A Testament of Hope", Dr. King wrote:

Confronted now with the interrelated problems of war, inflation, urban decay, white backlash and a climate of violence, it [United States] is now forced to address itself to race relations and poverty, and it is tragically unprepared.

Both men became locked together over the issues of poverty, inequality, racism and the Vietnam War.

Prior to his brother's assassination, Robert Kennedy's record on civil rights was complicated to say the least. On the one hand, he, serving as his brother's campaign manager, nudged Georgia state officials and a judge to release MLK from a Georgia jail. However, as U.S. Attorney General, he bowed under pressure from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to begin the wiretap on King, something that would trail King for the rest of his life. Notwithstanding, under Kennedy's tenure the Justice Department forced the integration of public schools and filed 57 lawsuits against localities for civil rights violations. He also opened up employment and career opportunities for blacks in the Justice Department's federal ranks, enabling many talented blacks, whose careers were stalled by lingering Jim Crow practices, to rise to leadership and supervisory positions.

Kennedy met King finally at the White House in 1963. The picture of the two of them surrounded by White House aides and vice-president Lyndon Johnson is the only known photo of them together.

With the assassination of John Kennedy, Robert gained his footing on civil rights and common cause with Americans left out of the American Dream. He toured Appalachia and riot-torn inner cities. His and Kings' thinking and social philosophies became strongly linked. This linkage is evidenced in two ways before the assassination of both. King, before his assassination, made it known that he would endorse Kennedy for president. At King's assassination, Robert Kennedy, during a campaign rally in a poor and black neighborhood, spoke some of his most memorable words, appealing to calm in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1968.

In their deaths we find a man reared in Boston's privileged Irish American society, joined with a Georgia preacher, reared in a middle-class black family that fought racial and social injustice for generations. Both were fighting for those less fortunate than themselves. Both had left America wondering about possibilities if they had lived.

Where do we stand today?

The issues and problems that King and Kennedy fought for still linger and in many respects are more challenging today. President Lyndon Johnson formed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder (more commonly referred to as the Kerner Commission) to uncover the reasons for civil unrest occurring since 1965. The Commission's findings in 1968 were that "our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white - separate and unequal". The report was largely ignored by the Congress and the President, both focused on the Vietnam War and other priorities, which Kennedy and King were outspoken about. In 1993, former Senator and Kerner Commission member, Fred R. Harris, co-authored a follow-up study that found that the racial divide had grown in the ensuing years with inner-city unemployment at a crisis level. Most recently on the 50th Anniversary of the report, Johns Hopkins University joined with other universities and held a conference to look at conditions today related to race and inequity. The conference concluded that conditions remain unchanged. Additionally, in 2016, the United States Government Accountability Office reported that "racial re-segregation is deepening."

Most recently in Philadelphia in 2017 the Mayor's Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity reported: "City poverty levels increased, primarily in zip codes in North and West Philadelphia. Forty percent of households are living below the poverty line." Philadelphia is America's sixth most populous city. Here 84% of public school children live in poverty. Philadelphia is a place where King was educated, learned about non-violent civil disobedience and social justice theology, forged many of his important alliances, and spent considerable time during his formative years as an activist. It was also on the last leg of his "Freedom Tour" before his assassination.

What would King and Kennedy say about today?