By David Margolick
On April 4, 1968, a single gunshot killed civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. on a motel balcony in Memphis. On June 5 of that same year, Senator Robert F. Kennedy — brother of assassinated President John F. Kennedy, the former U.S. Attorney General and a presidential candidate — was fatally shot at a Los Angeles hotel after winning California’s Democratic primary
In this excerpt from “The Promise and the Dream: The Untold Story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy,” David Margolick examines the relationship between the two men who shaped the era’s struggle for civil rights in America.
AFTER THE ASSASSINATION
Back they went to Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel.
Could the grieving disciples of Martin Luther King, Jr., have possibly chosen a grimmer spot to reconvene — the spot where he’d been murdered only a few hours earlier, where his blood still stained the cement on the balcony outside? And yet when they left the hospital in Memphis where King had died on the evening of April 4, 1968, what better place was there to mourn him than where he’d spent much of his last day on earth?
Gathered there, with King’s personal effects nearby — his small attaché case, a crumpled white shirt, a can of Hidden Magic hairspray, his Bible, a half-filled Styrofoam coffee cup, a pair of glass tumblers, and the remnants of a dessert — Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, and the others grappled with the catastrophe that had just befallen them. What would now happen to their movement? Who could take King’s place? What if his murder was only the first of a series that was still under way? Who among them would be next? And how could they help stop the rioting that had broken out in ghettos across America — the violent antithesis of everything for which King had stood?
But the same nineteen-inch Philco Starlite television set that beamed scenes of America aflame that night also brought some consolation, from Indianapolis, where Senator Robert F. Kennedy had spoken shortly after King had been declared dead
Huddled against the cold in his big brother’s old overcoat, he told a stunned and edgy crowd in the city’s most dangerous neighborhood that King had just been killed, then pleaded for calm and brotherhood, reminding everyone — as if anyone could not have known — that someone he’d loved had also been killed, and also by a white man. And unlike so many other cities that night, Indianapolis had stayed calm.
“We’d wanted to get on television and tell people not to fight, not to burn down the cities,” recalled Andrew Young. “We were trying to get the message out to people, ‘This is not what Dr. King would have you doing.’ But the press didn’t want to talk to us. They were right there at the hospital, and all they wanted to do was talk about the autopsy. Or they were going around chasing the kids with the firebombs, trying to interview them. It was almost like they were trying to provoke a riot.
“We were saying, ‘Look, Dr. King has gone. The important thing now is for us to keep his work going, and people are out in the streets now doing things that he wouldn’t want them to do.’ They weren’t interested in that. Bobby Kennedy’s was the only voice we identified with that night. We were grateful he was out there.”
He almost hadn’t been. Kennedy’s most senior advisers, the ones running his fledgling presidential campaign, had urged him to cancel the event: doing anything political on such a night would look bad, and going into the ghetto was just too dangerous. (Just be sure that in any statement he put out, they counseled, he not suggest he’d been too afraid to speak.) So had the mayor of Indianapolis, Richard Lugar, a lifelong resident who’d never set foot around 17th and Broadway, where a couple thousand people, nearly all of them black, had already gathered. So had the Indianapolis police. So had the customarily fearless Ethel Kennedy, who’d gone back to the hotel, praying in the back seat every minute en route.
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