Greg Dennis: King, RFK and the American Dream

1968, it has that ring
Of RFK and Martin Luther King
Where the dream went down on a hotel floor
Dreams are what we’re living for
— John Stewart, “Irresistible Targets”
One of Bobby Kennedy’s last public appearances was in San Diego before the California primary, 50 years ago this week. Standing on a stage at the El Cortez Hotel, he called for an end to the Vietnam War and racial injustice.
But just a few minutes into his speech, the senator from New York sat down near the edge of the stage. Exhausted from 80 days of campaigning, he put his head in his hands and momentarily passed out. After being helped to an off-stage bathroom where he washed his face with cold water, Kennedy walked back out and resumed his speech.
Andrew Young, then a close aide to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., recalls a day in 1966 when King and thousands of others were trying to integrate the schools of Mississippi. A white mob had attacked black schoolchildren in Grenada, Miss., breaking a 12-year-old boy’s leg with a lead pipe and pummeling a small girl.
King was so depressed by that day, Young says, that he couldn’t even get out of bed.
We remember King and Kennedy as the strongest of men, champions of liberty and equality, peacemakers in a time of war. But before they ultimately laid down their lives for what they believed, they suffered, too.
We honor King, a preacher man, as the compassionate soul he was.
Bobby Kennedy could be ruthless, but he had that compassionate side to him, too.
When Kennedy was shot in that L.A. hotel hallway and fell to the floor, his first words were not about himself but about the people around him. “Is everybody OK?” he asked.
RFK’s run for the presidency was one long call to end the killing in Vietnam and erase the poverty and racism that, to this day, oppress millions of Americans, black and white.
Less than two months before Kennedy’s assassination, King was killed while working to get a fair contract for the largely black sanitation workers of Memphis.
I was 15 years old at the time. And I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of crazy country I had been born into.
That insane year also brought a huge escalation of the Vietnam War courtesy of LBJ. Riots followed King’s death and stalked the Democratic Party convention in Chicago. George Wallace’s presidential campaign gave voice to the blatant racism haunting America. And Richard Nixon topped it all off by winning the presidency.
A prize Robert Kennedy should have won.
It’s impossible to look back at that June day in 1968 and not wonder what might have been.
Kennedy’s multiple primary victories, topped by his California win, offered the best hope to elect a president who was committed to ending the war.
Campaigning with Kennedy, singer-songwriter John Stewart recalled, “was like being with a panther in the middle of a hurricane.”
“In many ways he appears to have been the right leader at the right time,” says Joseph Palermo, a history professor at Sacramento State. “RFK had a sense of moral outrage at injustices in the United States, yet he did so in a way that was patriotic, calling out in 1968 that the country was not living up to its own creed and ideals.”
Kennedy’s support for civil rights ran even deeper and longer than his opposition to the war. As attorney general, for example, he sent U.S. marshals to rescue King when yet another white mob attacked a church where King was inside.
When King was shot, it fell to Kennedy to deliver the news to a campaign crowd in Indianapolis.
In that brave, impromptu speech, he reminded the crowd of King’s efforts to “replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.” He added this:
“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”
Imagine that today — that a prominent presidential candidate would stand up and call for love, wisdom and compassion for one another.
It’s a far cry from having a president who sends his lawyer out to say that he could assassinate the FBI director in the Oval Office and still remain above indictment. That he’s able to pardon himself for murder and any other illegal action he might take.
Looking back 50 years, we remember Martin Luther King Jr. for the constancy of his work to redeem this country. He preached the dignity of all human beings. He fought for the honor and value that lie in equality and justice for all.
Looking back now at Bobby Kennedy’s life and career, I’m struck not so much by his constancy as by his ability and willingness to evolve into a better man.
Bobby was known for his sharp elbows as he made his way through Washington, D.C. He may have been involved in the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and an effort to assassinate Fidel Castro. In 1964 he carpetbagged his way into New York state to capture a U.S. Senate seat. He entered the 1968 race only after Sen. Eugene McCarthy challenged Johnson in the New Hampshire primary and showed how vulnerable LBJ was.
But his early commitment to civil rights found a broad new platform when he ran for president. And he gave us the best hope that the Vietnam War could be brought to a quick denouement.
A lot of people have said this week that the dream died with King and Kennedy. “For my parents’ generation, King was the dream. And then he was gone,” recalls Boston Globe columnist Renee Graham.
But dreams truly are what we’re living for. We still long for a peaceful and just world that’s inspired by the American example.
Yet it’s also true that at a time when the Oval Office is occupied by a president elected by a minority of voters and styles himself closer to a king — who calls it unconstitutional to investigate his actions and who claims to be above the law — at a time like this, we are facing another test.
A half-century from now, in 2068, will people be able to look back and say that the American dream survived this test, too?
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other week and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @greengregdennis.

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