King, RFK: Rebels Married by History
This year marks 50 years since the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy shocked the nation. Taking place just eight weeks apart in 1968, the sudden deaths of both men shattered the hopes and dreams of many who saw them as the nation’s best chance for peace and racial equality. The nation was plunged into a dark, chaotic time that would close out a decade that began with promise, but ended with pain.
Conventional history and our capacity to mythologize our heroes leads us to believe that Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were arm-in-arm in a common struggle working toward a common goal. The truth is more complicated. King and Kennedy met only a dozen or so times, and they appeared in a photograph side by side only once, on June 22, 1963. The occasion was a White House meeting with King and other civil rights leaders brought together by vice president Lyndon Johnson.
This is one of 60 photographs now on display at the New-York Historical Society’s new exhibition, Rebel Spirits: Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., in New York City. The exhibit stemmed from an idea by noted photographer, writer, and filmmaker Lawrence Schiller, who chronicled many memorable and tragic events of the 1960s and photographed both King and Kennedy on multiple occasions.
Schiller wanted to explore the intersecting lives of the two men, but admittedly knew little about their relationship. He approached writer David Margolick, long-time contributor at Vanity Fair and former legal affairs correspondent for the New York Times, where he covered the O.J. Simpson trial.
Margolick explored the deep background to separate fact from speculation, speaking directly with people who knew King and Kennedy. His research revealed a complicated history between two men who were different in virtually every way—race, religion, socio-economic status, and personal temperament. King grew up guided by faith and was singularly motivated to achieve racial equality. Kennedy grew up immersed in politics, and this weighed heavily in his decision making.
The historical record actually shows that Robert Kennedy and his brother John were reluctant to embrace the civil rights cause. They feared the political ramifications of associating with King and how it could lead to loss of support for the Kennedy presidency. It was only after King and other civil rights activists were met with violence in the South that the Kennedy administration, specifically attorney general Robert Kennedy, began to deal with the issue directly. Kennedy grew frustrated with the political bind King put his brother in, while King was likewise frustrated at Kennedy’s lack of public support for the cause.
“These were two people who were very careful with one another,” says Margolick, “who were very wary of each other, who fenced with each other throughout the eight years they were both on the national stage.”
Margolick’s research on the relationship between King and Kennedy culminated in the book, The Promise and the Dream: The Untold Story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, due out April 3 from Rosetta Books. The book serves as an indispensable companion piece to the exhibit, adding fresh insights and new information about the two men.
While Margolick was busy writing, Schiller assembled the photographs for the exhibit from a collection of 31,000 images. He drew from his own work and that of several other photographers from the era, many of whom he knew personally. He relied on his experience and his photographer’s instinct to narrow it down to the final 60 images on display.
“I was raised at Life magazine,” says Schiller, “where every week we had to turn out a magazine. So, the editing process is really something that’s by second nature. You just feel something inside. What do I want to say and how do I want to say it.”
Schiller’s storytelling abilities are on display in the exhibit, which takes people through the early days of the Civil Rights Movement right up to and after the assassinations of King and Kennedy. Included are some images indelibly burned into our collective memory. Busboy Juan Romero kneeling by Robert Kennedy moments after he had been shot; King meeting with Lyndon Johnson about the Civil Rights bill; Kennedy swarmed by supporters on the campaign trail; King leading marchers in Selma.
But there are lesser known or forgotten images that put the lives of these two figures into perspective, demonstrating how the promise and peril of their times weighed upon them. One taken by Schiller depicts Kennedy with a group of people while a portrait of his brother, John, hangs in the background. The image speaks volumes, bringing to life Robert’s own doubts of whether he could run for president and be his own man, and how there would always those who would compare him to his brother. There is another that captures a somewhat shaken King emerging from the office of J. Edgar Hoover after learning the extent of the FBI’s surveillance on him and his activities. A visibly shaken Kennedy walking through a New York City slum; King holding his young son in his arms while he examines the charred remains of a burned cross in his front yard.
These and other images need to be witnessed in person to feel the full impact of the story that this exhibit ably tells of two men in a struggle to achieve equality and justice for all people. With such lofty goals in common, how is it that Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were not more closely associated when they were alive?
“The Kennedys were politicians, and King was a man of the cloth,” explains Margolick. “Their fundamental world views were very different.”
Despite this fact, the mythology of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy have outweighed the reality of the times in which they lived.
“They’ve been married together in history, even though their roles were quite different and separate,” says Schiller.