Assassinated only sixty-two days apart in 1968, King and Kennedy changed the United States forever, and their deaths profoundly altered the country’s trajectory. In The Promise and the Dream, Margolick examines their unique bond and the complicated mix of mutual assistance, impatience, wariness, awkwardness, antagonism, and admiration that existed between the two, documented with original interviews, oral histories, FBI files, and previously untapped contemporaneous accounts.
At a turning point in social history, MLK and RFK embarked on distinct but converging paths toward lasting change. Even when they weren’t interacting directly, they monitored and learned from, one another. Their joint story, a story each man took some pains to hide and which began to come into focus only with their murders, is not just gripping history but a window into contemporary America and the challenges we continue to face.
Complemented by award-winning historian Douglas Brinkley’s foreword and more than eighty revealing photos by the foremost photojournalists of the period, The Promise and the Dream offers a compelling look at one of the most consequential but misunderstood relationships in our nation’s history.
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HISTORY WOULD KEEP THEM TOGETHER
By the beginning of 1959, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was the most famous black preacher in America. Apart from assorted athletes and entertainers, he may have been the most famous black man in America. In most circles, he had become more widely known than the white religious figure after whom he had been named. And he was surely the most famous man, black or white, in Montgomery, Alabama. But when Robert F. Kennedy, already a man of considerable fame himself, flew into town on February 2, 1959, it wasn't to see King but to hobnob with King's wealthiest and most powerful opponents.
The Whitley Hotel, where Kennedy was to be the luncheon speaker that day, and the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the prestigious, even snooty, house of worship where King held the pulpit, were only a few minutes' walk from each other. But in a segregated southern city like Montgomery, they could just as easily have been in different constellations. Kennedy, then counsel for the Senate Rackets Committee in Washington, hadn't planned to look up King, nor would he have just run into him (King was in fact speaking in Philadelphia that day), and that would probably have been fine with them both.
Winton "Red" Blount, a wealthy local businessman and, later, a member of Richard Nixon's cabinet, had dispatched his private plane to fetch Kennedy from Atlanta, then escorted him to the Whitley, where, undeterred by the rain, more than seven hundred fifty people — the largest crowd ever for such an event — had gathered for the Chamber of Commerce's annual membership dinner. They filled up the hotel's Blue and Gray Room and spilled over into the State Room, where latecomers could watch Kennedy on closed-circuit television.
Introducing him was Alabama governor John Patterson, an arch-segregationist who had effectively banned the NAACP from the state a couple of years earlier. After thanking him, Kennedy went on to describe the fetid, corrupt state of America's unions, the object of his prosecutorial zeal back in Washington and a popular message in a state built on cheap labor. Those who missed Kennedy could read all about him on the front page of the next day's Montgomery Advertiser and see a giant photograph of him, a boutonniere in his lapel, flanked by two local burghers. Inside the paper, there was yet more about Kennedy, with his "broad smile" and "piercing blue eyes." Here was one Yankee who was welcome in these parts.
Even had he been in town, King would not have attended that evening. For as famous as he'd become, all Montgomery — its Chamber of Commerce, its hotels and restaurants and schools and water bubblers — remained segregated. So, too, for the most part, were its buses, though thanks to the dramatic campaign King had led three years earlier, it was now by tradition rather than by law: "Whites Only" and "Colored" signs still hung all over town. But while Kennedy and King wouldn't cross paths that rainy winter day, their lives would soon be very much entangled.
Notwithstanding the chasm between the two — a fabulously wealthy and privileged white boy from Massachusetts and the son of a black preacher in Jim Crow Georgia — Robert Francis Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., had a surprising amount in common beyond their age and fame and precociousness. Both had overbearing, even grandiose, fathers: Joseph P. Kennedy, the ambitious businessman, former government official, and ambassador to England; and the Reverend Martin Luther ("Daddy") King Sr., pastor of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church. Joe Kennedy had decreed that one of his sons would be president, and nothing short of that goal would do: "For the Kennedys, it's the castle or the outhouse. Nothing in between," he once said. And Daddy King did something even Joe Kennedy hadn't contemplated: renaming both himself and his five-year-old son, each of whom had been called "Michael King" at birth, after one of the seminal figures in Western religious history.
Yes, the sizes of their respective fortunes varied vastly, but each was affluent in his own community: Daddy King had vowed that none of his children would ever have to go to school smelling like a mule, as he had in rural Georgia, and this he accomplished. Neither Kennedy nor King had had to work his way through college; in graduate school, King even had a white maid. Both were highly educated and public-spirited: neither ever considered careers in commerce. Neither came from gentry; the family of each had clawed its way to respectability in a couple of generations. Both were gutsy, determined, and diminutive (King was under five feet seven inches tall, and Kennedy, five feet nine) — though King, characteristically, took his size in stride, while Kennedy took it as a challenge. Their stature and persistent youthfulness provided ammunition to their detractors.
To Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP, King was a "boy on a man's errand." While King's size was to some yet another source of affection — "I remember feeling, rather as though he were a younger, much-loved, and menaced brother, that he seemed very slight and vulnerable to be taking on such tremendous odds," James Baldwin once said — for Kennedy's many detractors it provided yet another hook from which to hang their resentment or contempt — as if what they so loathed about him was all the more noxious for being so concentrated. To Lyndon Johnson, Bobby Kennedy was a "little shitass" and a "snot-nosed kid"; and to the Teamsters' Jimmy Hoffa, he was simply "the little bastard." Both married young. Both were anticommunists. Both believed, fervently, in God.
But had they met that evening in Montgomery, they'd have been reminded that their differences were far more profound. King was capacious, adventurous, imaginative, independent, progressive, tolerant. Kennedy was sullen, angry, conventional, conservative, close-minded. King had the buoyancy and confidence of an eldest child; things came easily to him. Kennedy, the seventh of nine children and the younger brother of two handsome and charismatic superstars, had to work at everything. Notwithstanding its color and all the disadvantages it brought, King was far more comfortable in his own skin.
Young King — his oldest, pre-"Martin" friends called him "Mike" — had been an assiduous student, reveling in the life of the mind, forever spreading his wings. He was a rebel, delightedly tweaking his pious father by playing pool and smoking cigarettes in his presence and flirting with other careers. Even when he'd settled on the ministry, his was a career of ambitious activism — one that discomfited and worried Daddy King. He was a gifted orator who spoke mellifluously, sometimes too much so, rattling off extended metaphors and twenty-five-cent words. His heroes were rarefied philosophers and theologians like Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr.
Robert Kennedy, by contrast, was a plodding student who attended school dutifully and would probably have hidden whatever erudition he had. He followed his father's diktats dutifully. (To other people, he referred to him deferentially and maybe a bit pompously as "The Ambassador.") Never did he rebel or even chafe: he effectively skipped that stage in his development until the last few years of his life. His religion, a strict brand of Catholicism inherited wholesale from his pious mother, was more dutiful and ritualized and rigid than King's, and not, like King's, a call to arms. He went to Mass many mornings, crossed himself when he passed a church, held a Mass for his late sister Kathleen every year on her birthday. "Bog-Irish, with bleeding hearts of Jesus on the wall: a true primitive," was how his distant in-law (and constant, harping critic) Gore Vidal once described him. His heroes weren't thinkers but men of action, like Douglas MacArthur and J. Edgar Hoover. He would have made a great soldier, a longtime family friend once offered, something no one would ever have said about King.
Until the Montgomery Bus Boycott began in late 1955, King had never been especially political. He'd rejected communism, but only after a thorough excursion into Marx. But King's contempt for Soviet communism never extended to American communists, whom he knew had been among the most racially progressive white people out there. It was a distinction which, tragically, his detractors never accepted. Kennedy had been steeped in politics — "I can hardly remember a mealtime when the conversation was not dominated by what Franklin D. Roosevelt was doing or what was happening in the world," he once recalled. But his political views were strictly derivative: his overarching, knee-jerk anticommunism was a carbon copy of his old man's.
Before opting for Gandhian asceticism, King had been stylish — boyhood friends dubbed him "Tweed" — and epicurean, sensual. (His childhood pals were amused by latter-day portraits of his saintliness, noting that in his younger days he'd been plenty able to defend himself, sometimes with fisticuffs. "Tweed hadn't heard about Mahatma Gandhi then," one recalled.) He dated lots of women, white and black, before marrying (in June 1953) Coretta Scott, whom he'd met in Boston. While black and accomplished — she'd graduated from Antioch College, then studied voice at the New England Conservatory of Music — she was from small-town Alabama, and lacked the high-class Atlanta pedigree Daddy King had wanted. Young Martin King had a ribald sense of humor. He was popular and charismatic, elected president of his almost entirely white class at the Pennsylvania seminary he attended, gathering disciples throughout.
The only student office Bobby Kennedy ever held was head of the speakers' bureau at the University of Virginia Law School, a sinecure he won principally because he could stock the schedule with his father's friends. Outside his close and loving family — in the many, many portraits of them together, everyone is invariably smiling — Kennedy was tightly wound and angry. Ethel Skakel, whom he married in 1950, not only matched all the family's expectations (wealthy, Catholic) but even looked like him. He favored ratty sweaters and frayed cuffs and collars in a way only scions can afford.
Kennedy thrived on sports, earning the Harvard football letter his bigger big brothers never managed to, playing one game briefly on a broken leg until Kenny O'Donnell, his teammate and future key Kennedy adviser, sent him to the sidelines on a stretcher. "I think he could have creamed both [of his older brothers if] given half a chance," Arthur Krock of the New York Times, a family confidant and retainer, once said.
King's worst faults, like indecisiveness or ego, weren't matters of character. With Bobby Kennedy, it was different. Already by the 1950s, one word had attached itself to him with astonishing frequency and tenacity: ruthless. No person and adjective were ever so inseparable.
But the most fundamental difference between Kennedy and King concerned race: their consciousness of it; their experiences with it; their attitudes about it.
Kennedy's posture was beautifully illustrated in December 1964 while he prepared to give the John F. Kennedy Library an oral history on his time as attorney general. Before his interrogator, Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, managed to ask a single question, Kennedy preempted him with what he somehow sensed would be the issue foremost on Lewis's mind: "When did you first hear of civil rights?"
Even from the printed page, one can detect notes of amusement, weariness, self-pity, impatience, defensiveness, and disgust. More than a year after John Kennedy's assassination, Robert Kennedy was in his latest transition — in a few days, he'd be the junior senator from New York — but he knew that, come what may, this question would always be asked.
"I don't think it was a matter that we were extra concerned about as we were growing up," he said. "There wasn't any great problem." In Massachusetts in those years, he seemed to suggest, there just weren't enough blacks to worry about. (Or, as Martin Luther King later marveled, in Massachusetts, even the maids were Irish.) So, whether because they didn't have to or didn't care to, the Kennedys never did. "I never saw a Negro on level social terms with the Kennedys in all my years of acquaintance with them," Arthur Krock recalled. "And I never heard the subject mentioned. ... There was no concern I ever heard over the plight of the Negro." "I won't say I stayed awake nights worrying about civil rights before I became attorney general," Kennedy went on. His world was not just color blind, but color oblivious.
Young Robert had actually known some blacks: he played with the Bell brothers, sons of their white laundress and her black husband, who were about his age and lived just down the street in Hyannis Port. "I know it's the worst thing in the world to say that some of your best friends are ...," he told Lewis. "As I was growing up, I suppose two out of my four best friends were Negroes, and so it was all sort of accepted. ... There was never any thought about the fact that there was anything different."
"I think he was a misfit at school, and I think he was a misfit all the way through his whole career," his prep school classmate David Hackett later said. Drilled into him as a child, Kennedy recalled, was "the idea that there were a lot of people that were less fortunate. And white people and Negroes were all put in the same category. And that you had a responsibility to try and do something about it. But as far as separating the Negroes for having a more difficult time than the white people, that was not a particular issue in our house."
That had been true in 1948, when, shortly after graduating from Harvard, Bobby Kennedy managed his brother's reelection to his House seat in Cambridge. The district included blacks, but so powerless and numerically insignificant were they that they didn't even warrant campaign promises. "You never had to say you were going to do anything on civil rights; you never had to say you were going to do anything on housing," Bobby continued. "It was mostly just recognition of them. ... The Negroes were a relatively small population, and we weren't thinking [about] the Negroes in Mississippi or Alabama, what should be done for them. We were thinking of what needed to be done in Massachusetts." Surely, a skeptical Lewis pressed, there must have been times when race had come to loom larger to him. No, there hadn't been, Kennedy insisted. He stressed the point, though whether to expose or excoriate himself for his early insensitivity or to highlight his hardheadedness and evenhandedness (either would be in character) is not clear.
In any case, he was selling himself short. In 1947, one of Kennedy's Harvard football teammates was a black man named Chester Pierce. Kennedy, along with the others, convinced the administration to insist that if the University of Virginia refused to play against Pierce, it wouldn't play Harvard at all. (Pierce did get to play in Charlottesville. Harvard got clobbered, 47-0. An injured Kennedy listened to the game back in Cambridge.)
If Kennedy were at all put off by the whiff of Jim Crow attitudes in Charlottesville, it didn't keep him from going to law school there, though his undergraduate grades very nearly did — not an easy feat for someone of Kennedy's wealth and background. "It is, I think, only fair to tell you that in view of your record at Harvard College, you are unlikely to be admitted to this Law School, unless you do well on the Aptitude test," the chairman of the admissions committee there wrote him in April 1948.
That was enough to prompt Kennedy to enlist James M. Landis, who'd succeeded Joseph Kennedy as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and later became dean of Harvard Law School. In his letter to the committee, Landis suggested that one of young Kennedy's greatest credentials was that he was like his old man. "My own acquaintance with Robert Kennedy has been intimate enough to confirm my impressions that he had a number of those qualities that have worked so much for the success that his father has made in business, in government and in diplomacy," he wrote. "I realize, of course, that his academic record at Harvard is none too impressive. But some men only reveal capacities for work and achievement when they hit the impact of a professional school."
More impressive than sticking up for a black teammate at Harvard, at least implicitly, was how in 1951 Kennedy managed to bring the black diplomat Ralph Bunche (who, the year before, had become the first black to win the Nobel Peace Prize) to the still-segregated Charlottesville campus. Bunche refused to speak before the segregated audiences state law still insisted upon. Kennedy first overcame resistance from fellow students, southerners with political aspirations. And then, citing the Bill of Rights, the United Nations Charter, America's mission in World War II, and the ongoing propaganda war with the Soviets, he persuaded the university president to come around, too. So Bunche spoke to an audience with numerous blacks who sat wherever they pleased.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Promise and the Dream"
Copyright © 2018 David Margolick.
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Table of Contents
Author's Note 9
Foreword Douglas Brinkley 15
Introduction David Margolick 23
1 History Would Keep Them Together 37
2 Look the Enemy in the Eye 67
3 The Face of Courage 93
4 The Unkindest Cut 119
5 The Meeting 145
6 As Old as the Scriptures 165
7 The Least Worst Thing 193
8 How Long? Not Long! 213
9 Ripple of Hope 235
10 A Fine Pair 263
11 Change Would Come 279
12 The Political Equation 299
13 What They Did To Jack 317
14 There Were No Words 353