We explore the intertwined fates of Martin Luther King, Junior, and Robert F. Kennedy – two men who were linked in tragedy. In the first of two parts, Christopher Benedict starts by considering an awful event in the tumultuous spring of 1968 that brought them ‘together’.

Martin Luther King, Junior and Robert F. Kennedy together in 1963.

Martin Luther King, Junior and Robert F. Kennedy together in 1963.

Trouble is in the Land

Things were daily going from bad to worse in Memphis. No one could possibly have possessed the foresight to predict how terrible it would get.

The city’s mostly black sanitation workers had been on strike since February 12, 1968 following a breakdown in mediations between their union and newly elected mayor Henry Loeb which took place in the immediate aftermath of an on-the-job accident that claimed the lives of two public employees. Picket lines, sit-ins, peaceful protests, and a gospel singing marathon result in replacement scabs, an enforced curfew, police brutality, and the deligitimisation of their more than reasonable demands for safer working conditions and equitable economic compensation.

Persevering thanks to the endorsement and solidarity of the NAACP and Ministerial Association, the workers are further bolstered by the arrival of Martin Luther King Jr. who announces his orchestration of and participation in an organized citywide march. With King in the lead, an ambulatory rally sets out from Clayborn Temple en route to City Hall on March 28. Many demonstrators carry placards or wear sandwich boards bearing four words, the simplicity of which only adds immeasurably to their profundity. I AM A MAN.

It would not be ungraciously fair or unfair to jump to the conclusion that this self-affirmation was a contemporary repudiation of the Constitutional Convention’s compromise that individual slaves represented only three-fifths of a human being, a damning credence espoused by the founding fathers of a nation which, as King articulated in his I Have a Dream speech, “has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.” It was clear that “her citizens of color” were now intent upon collecting payment of the promissory note on which America had defaulted for nearly two hundred years. “This will not be a dramatic gesture,” vowed Dr. King, “but a demand for long overdue compensation.”

The march never reaches its destination. Vandalism is dealt with harshly, by means of billy clubs, tear gas and bullets. Hundreds of arrests, scores of injuries, and the death of 16 year-old Larry Payne necessitate the intervention of the National Guard shortly after sundown. Dr. King cancels a planned visit to Africa to see things through in Memphis, returning on April 3 to deliver what would prove to be a chillingly prophetic oration at the Masonic Temple.

Addressing the potential of his having walked directly into harm’s way by virtue of the threats issued “from some of our sick white brothers”, King concedes that “longevity has its place, but I’m not concerned about that now. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. And I’m so happy tonight,” he shouts exultantly, his voice soaring as the congregation likewise gives voice to its collective approval. “I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” Martin Luther King retires to the Lorraine Motel. In a boarding house across the street, a white supremacist drifter named James Earl Ray unpacks binoculars and a rifle from a duffel bag.

 

Miles to Go Before I Sleep

Like the very year itself, the 1968 Democratic Primary season was both a momentous and contentious one. New York’s carpet bagging Senator, Robert F. Kennedy (bobby), faced challenges from three formidable sources. First there was Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who entered the fray after Lyndon Johnson famously declared his intention to neither seek nor accept his party’s nomination. It was common knowledge that, despite the popularity contests at the polls, the party delegates overwhelmingly supported the old stalwart Humphrey.

Secondly, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy succeeded in galvanizing the youth movement which was anti-establishment, anti-war, and as hostile as college-aged peaceniks could be towards Robert Kennedy who, only now that LBJ had removed himself from the equation of presidential succession, spoke out openly and vehemently against Vietnam. Kennedy touched on both matters simultaneously by answering a question from a student at the University of Alabama with the jocular rejoinder that “I said I was for a coalition government in Saigon. Not here.”

Last, but certainly not least, the ever-present ghost of John F. Kennedy haunted his brother, Bobby, to the point where he seemed most of the time, in the words of journalist and Bobby’s close friend Jack Newfield, “half a zombie”. After receiving an emotional twenty-two minute standing ovation on the last day of the 1964 DNC in Atlantic City where he introduced a short film on Jack’s legacy, Bobby is said to have climbed out onto a nearby fire escape and cried. He often wondered whether the ecstatic throngs that showed up for his campaign rallies pulling at his clothing and mop-top hair in the hope of scoring a personal souvenir were there to see and hear him or simply touch a tangible extension of who and what his brother meant to them.

April 4 began, for Kennedy, as little more than the launch of the Indiana primaries. He delivered talks on child poverty, hunger, and joblessness first at Notre Dame University then at Ball State where he was confronted by a young black man about whether the Senator’s faith in white America was justified. “I think the vast majority of white people want to do the decent thing,” Kennedy responded.

Before boarding a plane from Muncie to Indianapolis, where he was to address an inner-city suburb that evening, Bobby received a phone call from his campaign manager Pierre Salinger (who had been JFK’s Press Secretary) informing him that Martin Luther King had been shot in Memphis. “When he landed in Indianapolis,” recalled Jack Newfield, “Kennedy was told that King was dead. Shot in the head-a wound not unlike John Kennedy’s. Robert Kennedy gasped and then wept for his adversary turned comrade.”

 

Something to Be Desired

Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were unlikely allies, and often uneasy ones at that. Bobby and Jack twice interceded on King’s behalf while imprisoned, a politically expedient but not totally disingenuous first effort which succeeded in excusing him from a sentence of hard labor after a protest in Georgia during the closing months of the 1960 presidential election cycle, followed by getting King removed from solitary confinement and placed back into the general population of Birmingham Jail from where he wrote his famous letter in response to fellow clergymen who, not unlike the Kennedys in days not long gone, viewed the civil rights leader as a rabble-rouser and trouble-maker.

It was Robert who, as Attorney General, initiated an investigation into King’s alleged Communist affiliations and approved the home and office wiretapping order requested by J. Edgar Hoover who had become obsessed in a most unwholesome way with the extracurricular sexual exploits of both King and John Kennedy.

King had voiced his displeasure at the failure of the Justice Department to enforce integrated public transit as well as Bobby’s reluctance in providing proper protection for the interracial Freedom Rides which departed Washington DC for points south, leading to arrests, bloody beatings, and the firebombing of one bus in Anniston, Alabama. After initially calling for restraint on the part of the Freedom Riders, Bobby arranged for armed escorts courtesy of the Alabama State Highway Patrol to conduct them safely to Montgomery by Greyhound.

August 1963’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was another thorn in the side of the Kennedys. Despite making good on their pledge of cooperation with the event’s Big Six (King, John Lewis, Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, James Farmer, and Whitney Young) in coordinating the rally, the excision of the more incendiary passages in John Lewis’ opening speech critical of the Kennedy presidency was guided by the administration’s heavy hand.

The President and Attorney General were far more consistent and pro-active in their handling of James Meredith’s desegregation of the University of Mississippi and even more so in Bobby’s successful standoff with Governor George Wallace who personally acted as a bodily barrier against the admission of Vivian Jones and James Hood into the University of Alabama. King noted that the President “grew a great deal” between his inauguration and assassination with the mournful misgiving that “he was getting ready to throw off political considerations and see the real moral issues.”

While the full extent of JFK’s ideological evolution can only be surmised due to its violent interruption, Robert Kennedy had an additional four and a half years to continue his forward progress before suffering a similarly obscene fate. As Senator of New York, Bobby created the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation after touring the poverty-stricken, drug and gang-infested neighborhood known as Brooklyn’s Little Harlem and being deeply affected by what he saw and who he met there. During the 1968 presidential campaign, he would make purposeful and extensive detours to urban areas where others feared to go-aligning himself along the way with the inner cities’ disenfranchised black communities, Cesar Chavez and California’s fruit-picking migrant workers, and former SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) President, Freedom Rider, Washington Marcher, and Kennedy agitator John Lewis who is now and has been since 1987 the Democratic Congressional Representative of Georgia’s 5th District.

 

The Awful Grace of God

Lewis, then a member of Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign staff, was waiting at 17th and Broadway, the site of Bobby’s planned rally, along with approximately 3,000 spectators. Although Lewis and fellow aide Earl Graves were aware of Martin Luther King’s assassination, most early arrivals among the gathering were not. The latecomers on the outer perimeter, however, had heard the news and were pressing in, filling the night air with the possibility of sinister unease as riots had already erupted spontaneously and sporadically across the country. Several of Kennedy’s more anxious advisors cautioned him to cancel his appearance and the local police could not and would not guarantee his personal safety should he choose to proceed. John Lewis was of the belief that they simply could not “send them home without saying anything at all. Kennedy has to speak, for his sake and for the sake of these people.”

Bobby had already made up his mind to not only press ahead and address the audience, but to jettison his prepared remarks and speak from the heart rather than read from a piece of paper. Although speechwriter Frank Mankiewicz failed to reach Kennedy with his notes before he stepped to the forefront of a crowded flatbed truck, Adam Walinsky did hand the Senator his frantically composed thoughts. Bobby thanked Walinsky and accepted the draft which he promptly folded and stuffed into a pocket of his overcoat.

For the five minutes that he spoke, “his face gaunt and distressed and full of anguish” recalled television correspondent Charles Quinn, Bobby gripped in his right hand a tightly rolled sheaf of papers on which he had jotted down the skeletal structure of his brief remarks on the desolate drive over, after having dropped a pregnant Ethel off at the hotel, wringing the disregarded sheets with his left hand at various times.

Without preamble or a customary introduction, a visibly distraught Kennedy began by saying, “I have bad news for you, for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.” An audible shockwave of torment pulsates throughout the crowd, cries of disbelief, screams of horror. “We can move in that direction (bitterness…hatred…revenge) in greater polarization, filled with hatred toward one another,” he continued. “Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.”

Struggling against the strangulation of naked misery, Bobby for the first time publicly references his brother’s murder while quelling the “hatred and mistrust” that blacks may be tempted to feel and act upon. “I can only say that I had a member of my own family killed,” he avows with curiously detached phrasing, “but he was killed by a white man.”

In times of personal crisis, Bobby sought the solace and wisdom of Shakespeare and the Greek tragedies. On stage at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, he honored Jack with a passage from Romeo and Juliet. “When he shall die, take him and cut him out into the stars, and he shall make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun.”

This night is no exception and Bobby, somehow effortlessly unifying the emotional with the cerebral, recites these heart-wrenchingly beautiful words from Aeschylus, “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

“It is not the end of violence, it is not the end of lawlessness, it is not the end of disorder,” concedes Kennedy to the reverently hushed assembly. “But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.” This is met by affirmative cheers and applause and Kennedy closes by revisiting the Greeks and their dedication “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

Riots, resulting in thirty-nine deaths, twenty-five hundred injuries, tens of millions of dollars in property damage, and the presence of seventy-five thousand National Guardsmen occurred throughout one hundred and ten cities that night. Indianapolis remained respectfully tranquil.

 

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Racial tensions have sadly been all too common in the United States over the years. Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere are but the latest in a long line of racial issues. Here, Edward J. Vinski presents a fascinating view on race in America, with the help of two very different people who wrote at the height of the American Civil Rights movement.

Photograph of a Young Woman at the Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. with a Banner,  1963. From the U.S. Information Agency.

Photograph of a Young Woman at the Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. with a Banner, 1963. From the U.S. Information Agency.

When one reads, one enters into a conversation with the writer. Such conversation, although naturally different from the more traditional face-to-face method, allows us to travel across time and distance and even to resurrect the dead. This, of course, is only in a manner of speaking, but in the world of letters the conversation is real. We may hear the words of persons long since dead and descriptions of places we might never visit.

For a brief moment during the height of America’s Civil Rights movement, an unconventional conversation occurred between two men: one, James Baldwin, an African American writer living in Europe, the other, Thomas Merton, a white Trappist monk living in a Kentucky monastery.  While their different backgrounds alone might make their interaction appear somewhat unusual, they shared a social consciousness that transcended their worlds. In this, they were, perhaps, more similar than they might initially seem.  What makes their conversation truly unique, however, is the way they communicated to each other and ultimately to their readers: they conversed primarily through a series of letters not addressed to each other.

 

The “Correspondence”

In his 1963 book The Fire Next Time, Baldwin demonstrates what it means to be black in America and how whites are, in fact, viewed by their black counterparts. The two essays take the form of letters[1]. The first and shorter of the two, “My Dungeon Shook”, is written as a “Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation.” In it, Baldwin describes his own father, recalling that “he was defeated long before he died because at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him” (Baldwin, 1963/1985, p. 3), and he admonishes his nephew that “you can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger” (p. 4). Through this initial statement, Baldwin shows the connection between the movement toward black freedom and that of white freedom as well. By using the offensive word “nigger” he underscores this fact that American Blacks are an invention of White Americans. It is this creation that causes “defeat “ in those created, as in the case of the senior Baldwin, and it is the crime of which Baldwin accuses his countrymen. He writes that they are destroying:

Hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it […] but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime (p. 5).

 

Their so-called innocence lies in the fact that White America fails to see the crime. “They are, in effect,” Baldwin writes, “still trapped in a history they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it” (p. 8). As such, the truth about integration is not that it means the acceptance of blacks by whites. Rather, Baldwin tells his nephew, “the terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them” (p. 8).

In his long-form essay “Letters to a White Liberal”, written in response to The Fire Next Time, Merton recognizes this very assumption among whites that white society is somehow superior to that of blacks. Perhaps more accurately, White America exists under the assumption that it has somehow achieved perfect human completeness.  From this perspective, as Baldwin suggests, blacks are “to be accepted into white society” (Merton, 1964, p. 58). Baldwin and Merton both call attention to the fact that equality does not mean the elevation of one group to the standards of the other. Rather, true integration and equality requires movement on both sides. “Your sister and I have every right to marry if we wish to,” writes Baldwin, “[…] if she cannot raise me to her level, perhaps I can raise her to mine” (Baldwin, 1963/1985, p. 96). Merton concurs. In the only direct correspondence between the two men, Merton wrote a letter to Baldwin shortly after he read The Fire Next Time. In it, he states that human completeness comes only from the realization that “I am therefore not completely human until I have found myself in my African and Asian and Indonesian brother because he has the part of humanity which I lack” (Merton, 1964/2008, p. 226).[2]

Even if true equality means that blacks must unilaterally become more like whites, Baldwin questions whether blacks would accept these conditions. He writes that:

I do not know many Negros who are eager to be ‘accepted’ by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t want to be beaten over the head by the whites […] white people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this […] the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed (Baldwin, 1963/1985, p. 21).

 

Years earlier, Merton had come to a similar conclusion. Working for a time among Harlem, New York’s poor, sick and dispossessed at Baroness Catherine de Hueck’s Friendship House led him to conclude that “there is not an Negro in the whole place who does not realize, somewhere in the depths of his nature, that the culture of the white man is not worth the dirt in Harlem’s gutters” (Merton, 1948/1976, p. 386). Not only do they not wish to be integrated in to such a world, the sickness, drugs and death of Harlem stood not only as a contrast to the corruption and greed of white society, but as an indictment against that very society. Reflecting on what he saw, Merton concluded that such pockets of resistance against White American society may be all that prevents God’s wrath from wiping that very society from the planet.

While both men recognize that the races need each other to achieve perfection, they also acknowledge that awareness of this fact is difficult for people to grasp. Baldwin indicates that such a realization is more difficult for those in power writing that “people are not, for example, terribly anxious to be equal […] but they love the idea of being superior” (Baldwin, 1963/1985, p. 87). For whatever reason, Americans have long mistrusted standards of civilization that are not cut from the European model. As a result, white Americans have come to believe that they possess something “[…] that black people need or want.  And this assumption […] makes the solution to the Negro problem depend on the speed with which Negroes accept and adopt white standards” (p. 93).

Merton concurs. Whites, according to him, all too frequently assume that they have nothing to gain from blacks and that black society is therefore “more or less worthless” (Merton, 1964, p. 59), thus echoing the sentiment expressed in his letter to Baldwin. The truth that both writers present is that “different races and cultures are correlative. They mutually complete each other” (Merton, 1964, p. 61).

The problem is that the self-knowledge necessary to change this perception would require an abandoning of the most cherished American myths: that of “freedom-loving heroes” (Baldwin, 1963/1985, p. 100). These are the myths that whites believe and about which blacks know better[3]. As such, most blacks “dismiss white people as slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing” (p. 101). Blacks can’t hate whites, according to Baldwin, because they know how much whites have to lose if integration was to become complete, and that the fear of this loss is such that it is impossible for whites to act with love toward them.

Merton draws the same conclusion, writing:

If the Negro […] enters wholly into white society, then that society is going to be radically changed. This, of course is what the white South very well knows and it is what the white Liberal has failed to understand (Merton, 1964, p. 8).

 

Equality, thus, can only be obtained through sacrifice particularly on the part of whites. The world they knew will be radically altered on economic, social, and psychological levels. But this is the price to be paid for a new society. “The only way out of this fantastic impasse is for everyone to face and accept the difficulties and sacrifices involved, in all their seriousness, in all their inexorable demands” (Merton, 1964, p. 9).       

The writer and the monk bring their respective books to a close with calls to action. Baldwin attempts to rally “the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks” of America. “If we […] do not falter in our duty now, we may be able […] to end the racial nightmare and achieve our country, and change the history of the world” (Baldwin, 1963/1985, p. 104-105). But if we fail, he writes, the prophecy of the old spiritual will come to pass: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, the fire next time!” (p. 105).

Merton’s ending is, perhaps, less dramatic, but just as powerful. Recognizing the difficulty that whites have in understanding the message of the Black Americans, he writes:

This is the message which the Negro is trying to give white America. I have spelled it out for myself, subject to correction, in order to see whether a white man is even capable of grasping the words, let alone believing them (Merton, 1964, p. 70).

 

Then, acknowledging that the truly prophetic vision of a racially equal America’s potential can only come from the perspective of Blacks, he brings this message home: “For the rest, you have Moses and the prophets. Martin Luther King, James Baldwin and the others. Read them, and see for yourself what they are saying” (p. 70).

 

Conclusion

The passage of the thirteenth amendment abolished slavery in the United States, but it did not end racial injustice. The Brown vs. The Board of Education court decision helped integrate American schools, but did not end racial inequality. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the 1960s did not end racial tensions. The last half-century has been one in which periods of relative calm are punctuated by flare-ups of old resentments and suspicions. The events of Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; and Baltimore, Maryland have been nothing but the most recent examples of long-simmering racial tensions boiling over. With each event, there are calls for a national conversation on race. Sadly, people on both sides of the divide often bristle at and deflect any real attempts at open discussion. In the meantime, opportunists seek to achieve their own ends. In so doing, they add a further level of distraction to matters, often doing little more than confirming the worst fears of those on whichever side they seem to oppose.

The truth is that the story of America is intertwined with the messy story of racism, and until the entire nation comes to grips with this disturbing fact, it is likely that a resolution to the problem will continue to elude us. Fifty years ago, Thomas Merton and James Baldwin exchanged “letters” devoted to this topic. If there is any significant lesson to be learned from their “correspondence” it is this: racism in America will not be solved by the nation’s liberals or conservatives, politicians or activists.

Rather, change will be brought about by its prophets who can see the problem from a self-critical, but not self-condemning perspective.

 

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Author’s note

I ask to be excused a slight stylistic indulgence.  In light of my thesis that the written word allows a measure of immortality, I have written most of this piece in the present tense. I believe that the conversation is too important to have simply happened once and for all in the past. Rather I believe that Merton and Baldwin continue to speak to each of us to this very day.  

 

References

Baldwin, J. (1963/1985). The fire next time. New York: The Modern Library.

Campbell, J. (1991) Talking at the gates: A life of James Baldwin. New York: Viking.

Leeming, D. (1994). James Baldwin: A biography. New York: Arcade

Merton, T. (1948/1976). The seven storey mountain. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company.

Merton, T. (1963/2008). Letter to James Baldwin. In W.H. Shannon and C.M. Bochen (Eds.). Thomas Merton: A life in letters. New York: Harper One.

Merton, T. (1964). Seeds of destruction. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

 

Footnotes

 

1. The New Yorker, in which the essays were published before being collected in The Fire Next Time, required that all submissions be in the form of a “Letter from….” (Campbell, 1991)

2. As not all of Baldwin’s personal papers have been released to the public, I am not aware of whether he replied to Merton. 

3. This is not an exclusively American problem. While visiting an elementary school in Senegal, Baldwin was outraged to find the children’s textbook referring to their ancestors from Gaul (Leeming, 1994)