Book Excerpt: After MLK Death, RFK ‘Poured His Heart Out’

April 3, 1969: A 'Don't work' sign displayed in H Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. calls for a holiday to honor the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. King's birthday was approved as a federal holiday in 1983. REUTERS/Library of Congress/Handout via Reuters

By David Margolick

As riots erupted and smoke billowed from black neighborhoods in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination, Robert F. Kennedy met with black activists, politicians and celebrities in a hotel suite “to tamp things down and divine what should come next,” writes David Margolick in “The Promise and the Dream: The Untold Story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy”

In this excerpt, Margolick examines Kennedy’s response to the killing — and his belief that he too would die at an assassin’s hand.



The American Electra jet that Robert Kennedy arranged for Coretta Scott King lifted off in Atlanta at 9:15 on the morning of April 5. It would land in Memphis a little more than an hour later. She did not get off the aircraft. She kept her composure as the casket carrying her husband was removed from the hearse but collapsed on the shoulder of a companion as it was lifted up for Martin Luther King’s final journey home. An unidentified SCLC official in Atlanta was asked who King’s pallbearers would be. “Every black man in this country,” he replied.


Smoke rises near the U.S. Capitol, during the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
April 6, 1968: Smoke rises near the U.S. Capitol during the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. REUTERS/Library of Congress/Handout via Reuters


While Coretta King made her way to Tennessee, Kennedy sat down with his old friend Jack Paar in a television studio in Indianapolis. Back when the wall between television personalities and politics was a bit lower, Paar was available for partisan purposes — in this instance, for the kind of question-and-answer session in which, Kennedy’s admen still believed, the candidate was most appealing.

They would edit the conversation into small bits and use them in commercials. Calibrating his message to conservative Indiana, Kennedy talked more with Paar about law and order than civil rights, and more about national security than either. Asked to identify his greatest single accomplishment as attorney general, Kennedy veered off into the Cuba Missile Crisis and how he’d helped save the planet.


Whenever Paar tried to get him to talk about King, Kennedy put him off. Even with King gone, Kennedy was keeping his distance

Kennedy then headed to Cleveland for his previously scheduled lunchtime speech to the Cleveland City Club. Both en route and afterward, he avoided any appearance of politicking: the hundreds of people chanting “We want Kennedy!” outside the hotel where he was to speak had to content themselves with a wave from an upstairs window.

Kennedy’s speechwriters must have understood that no one would want anything long-winded; he spoke only a couple of minutes longer than he just had in Indianapolis. In the aftermath of both the shooting and the violence that followed, he made another plea for brotherhood and a denunciation of violence, which he defined far more broadly than usual. Brutality, he said, came not just from snipers, mobs, and gangs, but from lawless law enforcement, Hollywood, armies killing innocent civilians in far-off lands, and apathetic and indifferent bureaucracies.



There is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions, indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter. This is the breaking of a man’s spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this, too, afflicts us all.

Three times, Kennedy remarked on how short life was, a theme he had never dwelt on before. He also made the appealing but ridiculous claim that assassinations were futile. “No martyr’s cause has ever been stilled by his assassin’s bullet,” he said. Walinsky [a former Kennedy aide] later called it more “Sunday school sermon” than an appraisal of human history. And William F. Buckley later described it as a plea from Kennedy to his own assassin, “whose name neither he nor anyone else knew, but whose existence he had frequently conjectured.”


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