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.

 

Did you find this article interesting? If so, tell the world. Tweet about it, like it, or share it by clicking on one of the buttons below…

Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a wave of tributes and memorials commemorated him around the world. One such memorial was the naming of a mountain in Canada – Mount Kennedy. Here, Christopher Benedict explains the story of how JFK’s brother, Robert Kennedy, attempted to make the first ever ascent of the mountain.

The Kennedy brothers in 1960. Robert is in the middle, with John on the left, and Ted on the right.

The Kennedy brothers in 1960. Robert is in the middle, with John on the left, and Ted on the right.

Difficult and Perplexing Times

There is no setting the clock on grief. Tragedy does not come with a catch-all instruction manual to help survivors cope in some uniform fashion with the incomprehensible. Retreating into a cocoon of counter-productive and self-destructive tendencies-denial, despondency, and inactivity-may suffice for most people. But, Robert F. Kennedy was not most people.

Which is not to suggest that he was impervious to such things. In the time spanning Jack’s murder and his own, he took to wearing his brother’s naval jacket, literally cloaking himself in sorrow. However, he also accepted this most wretched of calamities as a provocative personal challenge. To struggle against the stagnation of pre-conceived notions and overcome confidential fears and ideological obstacles to achieve forward progress in his own thought process and, therefore, of the society of which he was an active participant and public servant.

“He had always been a taker of risks from that day, so many years before, when he had thrown himself off the yawl into Nantucket Sound in his determination to learn to swim,” historian, Special Assistant to the President, and family friend Arthur Schlesinger wrote of Bobby, “and John Kennedy had said he had shown either a lot of guts or no sense at all, depending on how you looked at it.”

When the National Geographic Society proposed that the surviving Kennedy brothers Robert and Edward join the assemblage of experienced climbers seeking to be the first to ascend the Canadian mountain peak named for their fallen brother, a horrible plane crash less than seven months after Jack’s assassination, in which Ted suffered three broken vertebrae, two cracked ribs, and a collapsed lung, removed him from the equation.

It would have been more than understandable had Robert, terrified of heights and otherwise “rash but not reckless” in Schlesinger’s estimation, begged off the expedition, especially given the perilous nature of recent circumstances. For most people, this would have been perfectly acceptable. But, again, Bobby was not most people.

 

Lofty and Magnificent

Tributes to the martyred President John F. Kennedy emanated from all points on the globe common and obscure, his name and/or likeness affixed to coins, plaques, statues, stamps, streets, high schools and law schools, office buildings, an international airport in Queens, New York, the former Plum Pudding Island in the South Pacific from which Lt. Kennedy and his surviving PT-109 crew were rescued during World War Two after their craft had been demolished following an encounter with a Japanese destroyer.

The Canadian government had something in mind on a much grander scale. Though initially, in the opinion of Bradford Washburn, not grand enough. Washburn, founder and director of Boston’s Museum of Science, was a cartographer and mountaineer with an impressive list of first ascents to his credit, most notably the West Buttress of Mount McKinley, North America’s highest mountain.

He urged the Canadian Parliament to reconsider their original choice for Mount Kennedy, a 12,200-foot peak which he referred dismissively to as “a burble”. The uncharted 14,000-foot Yukon mountain near the Alaskan border that he had in mind was one Washburn had discovered himself from a Fairchild ski-plane during a 1935 mapping mission for National Geographic. Thirty years later, he was now gathering a survey and summit party on behalf of National Geographic and the Boston Museum of Science to set out for Mt. Kennedy and its two adjoining peaks. The expedition would include in its ranks Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Mt. Everest in 1963, Barry Prather, who was a support member of the 1963 team but fell ill with pulmonary edema and was unable to continue, Mount Rainier park ranger Dee Molenaar and fellow Washington state native George Senner, British Columbia Mountaineering Club member James Craig, National Geographic photographer William Allard, and last  - but not least - New York Senator Robert Kennedy.

Asked by Whittaker about his training regimen for the upcoming journey, Bobby joked, “Running up and down the stairs and hollering, help!”

Lightheartedness was a fine defense mechanism to ward off the fear which must have been substantial to a novice climber. Even Whittaker worried over the potential for avalanches caused by melting spring snows, not to mention the concerns inherent to exploring uncharted territory where “one doesn’t know what those problems will be.” 

 

Mount Kennedy as shown from an airplane in 1984. Mount Kennedy is the high peak towards the left. Source: Gary Clark, available  here .

Mount Kennedy as shown from an airplane in 1984. Mount Kennedy is the high peak towards the left. Source: Gary Clark, available here.

Commitment of Body and Mind

His first actual sighting of the mountain came, “lonely, stark, forbidding” Kennedy recalled, on March 23, 1965 from a relatively safe sixty-mile distance in the confines of a Royal Canadian Air Force helicopter. The team members were deposited at 8,700 feet where Base Camp One had been established on the newly christened Hyannis Glacier for their first night’s stay. The following morning, the expedition gained an additional 4,000 feet of elevation over the unwelcoming terrain of Cathedral Glacier to reach the High Camp through a snowstorm that, by early evening, had developed into white-out blizzard conditions. This turn of events threatened the next day’s planned summit attempt.

Fortunately, wrote Robert Kennedy for his Life cover story, “during the night the snow stopped, the stars became bright, and the northern lights appeared over the ridge of the mountains.” As picturesque as it was propitious for the task at hand, their tents were nonetheless buffeted by 50 mph winds which “made sleep impossible” but also “either cleared or packed the fresh snow which had fallen and made our climb to the summit that much easier.” Not that it would be free of near disaster.

After waking at 6am to amenable temperatures of 5 above 0 for a breakfast of “soup, mush, and chocolate bars”, the climbers geared up and set off on their final assault at 8.30am. Bobby had learned well from his mountaineering mentors who were all duly impressed with the Senator’s efforts. He was, after all, a veteran of the legendary Kennedy football games on the front lawn at Hyannis Port which would not uncommonly end in bloody noses and bruised egos for brothers and sisters alike. He kept his attention on the progress of “how far we would be in 100 steps” but would also create a diversion in his mind by way of mentally reciting poems as well as passages from Churchill and Emerson. It was not for lack of focus, but simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, that Bobby, negotiating a 65-degree incline, suddenly plunged into an icy crevasse up to his shoulders. Quickly pulled free, he looked down from whence he emerged unable to see the bottom, pondering in retrospect the advice given by his mother Rose: “Don’t slip, dear.”

 

What Am I Doing Here?

“I had three choices: to go down, to fall off, or to go ahead”, reflected Bobby, who was told by a newspaper reporter prior to his departure that he had already written Kennedy’s obituary. With the grim determination for which he was famous (and feared), he reassessed that “I really had only one choice.” 100 feet from the summit, the ridge flattened and widened considerably and it was about here that he was untethered from his rope team of Jim Whittaker and Barry Prather.   

Whittaker, who had been awarded the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal by President Kennedy during a Rose Garden ceremony a mere four months before JFK was killed in Dallas, was the first to selflessly urge Bobby ahead of the pack of proud and accomplished climbers so that he could be the first man to set foot on the summit of Mount Kennedy.

Ironically, at approximately 1pm Robert Kennedy unfurled and planted at the pinnacle of the mountain a three-foot tall flag bearing his family’s crest - the official moment of death ascribed to his brother. He also set in the snow, “with mixed emotion”, two PT-109 tie clasps as well as a golden inaugural medallion which complemented the bound copy of the President’s historic “Ask Not” address encased in plastic. “It was with a feeling of pain that the events of 16 months and two days before had made it necessary,” Robert later wrote. “It was a feeling of relief and exhilaration that we had accomplished what we set out to do.”

Happy to be home, Kennedy would neither scale another mountain nor entertain the desire to do so. Removed from the immediacy of quick thinking and physical exertion necessary in the present moment, however, Bobby was finally able to treasure the views and elements which “I’m sure would have greatly pleased the man for whom the mountain was named.”

 

Did you enjoy this article? If so, tell the world! Tweet about it, like it, or share it by clicking on one of the buttons below!

Sources

  • Robert Kennedy and His Times by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (1978, Houghton Mifflin)
  • Our Climb Up Mt. Kennedy by Robert Kennedy (Life Magazine, April 9, 1965)
  • Mountain Tribute to JFK Evoked by Kennedy Trip to Yukon by Michael Jourdan (National Geographic, August 5, 2013) 
  • The Strange History of Mount Kennedy, http://www.theclymb.com/stories/out-there/the-strange-history-of-mount-kennedy/