For most of their public lives, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were hardly allies, let alone friends. The dividing line was too thick, one the heir of Irish-American royalty, the other the agitator for civil rights in the Deep South. And there is scant record of their lives touching.
Yet both men, who died fifty years ago this year, are the subject of a slender new show at the New York Historical Society called Rebel Spirits: Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Because the record of their relationship is so slight, one that transpired mostly over phone calls, the exhibition is in part not so much the story of two charismatic American icons as it is the story, told largely through sixty news photographs, of the civil rights movement in America and its often uneasy relationship to power.
The distance between the two men is most apparent midway through the exhibition. At the back wall of the small upstairs gallery are their portraits. They are not the brooding and beautiful shots most people are familiar with, that of King looking sideways from the pews during a Southern Christian Leadership Conference meeting or Kennedy staring out the window of his campaign plane, both of which greet visitors as they enter the show.
Rather, these side-by-side shots feature a solemn-looking King staring at the camera with a number hung over his neck. It is a mugshot from King’s arrest in 1956 during the Montgomery bus boycott.
Scribbled over it, presumably from an Alabama police office years later, is the word “DEAD 4-4-68.” At the right shoulder of this King is Kennedy, his hair in its famous tousle, his face partially obscured by a director’s slateboard clapper with the words “Paris, France” scrawled across it.
These were lives, in other words, more different than they were the same.
The first time the paths of the Boston brahmin (although, to be clear, the Kennedy clan’s Irish Catholicism kept them on the margins of certain segments of polite society) and the Georgia preacher crossed was during the fall of 1960, when John F. Kennedy was locked in a neck-and-neck campaign for president and King was sitting in Georgia jail, arrested trying to peacefully integrate an Atlanta department store restaurant.
Kennedy put in a sympathy call to King’s wife Coretta, while Bobby, then his brother’s campaign manager, called state officials and a judge in the state to nudge King’s release along.
The efforts helped deliver African-Americans in the South to the Democratic Party and away from the party of Lincoln, but afterwards President Kennedy slow-walked progress on civil rights, fearful of antagonizing southern segregationists in the House and Senate.
President Kennedy’s later lionization as a champion of equality is a bastardization of the record, but Bobby was better, even if he bowed under pressure from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to begin the wiretap on King that would trail him for the rest of his life.
Robert Kennedy kept in his office at the Justice Department–when he served as attorney general for his brother–the bashed-in white metal helmet of one of the U.S. Marshals who protected James Meredith as he attempted to integrate the University of Mississippi.
Kennedy’s Justice Department forced the integration of public schools and filed 57 lawsuits against localities for civil rights violations. He met King at the White House; the picture of the two of them surrounded by a phalanx of White House aides and vice-president Lyndon Johnson is one of the highlights of the show and the only known photo of them together.
Rather, as the show makes clear, Kennedy found his footing on civil rights in the wake and grief of his brother’s death. The operator who bragged, “People say I am ruthless. I am not ruthless. And if I find the man who is calling me ruthless, I shall destroy him” found common cause with people who suffer, became a senator from New York, and toured Appalachia and riot-scarred inner cities.
Before his death, King made it known that Kennedy would be the recipient of King’s first presidential endorsement. In a glass display case at the center of the gallery is even a small “Kennedy/King” campaign pin from early 1968. After King’s death, some civil rights leaders looked to Kennedy, and not to King’s deputies, to carry the movement forward.
Many of the images in “Rebel Spirits” will be familiar to anyone who lived through the Sixties, or the Sixties nostalgia that has soaked the culture ever since.
But there are still some shots here that retain the power to shock. Among them is King holding his young son in his arms in broad daylight as they inspect a charred cross left on their front lawn the night before, courtesy of the Ku Klux Klan.
Another is a grainy picture, courtesy of the FBI files, of King with advisors Stanley Levison and Clarence Jones, presumed (wrongly as it turns out) Communist agents. Another is of King leaving Hoover’s office, his face stuck in shocked surprise as he comes to understand the extent of the surveillance the bureau has conducted against him.
There are bits of humor in “Rebel Spirits, “including a letter that Kennedy wrote to Time magazine publisher Henry Luce complaining of “the prejudice and unfairness of Time Magazine as far as the Kennedys are concerned,” but it is for the most part a somber and sober way to spend an hour or so.
The show begins and ends with Robert Kennedy’s campaign rally in a poor and black neighborhood the night of King’s assassination. Cities across America were breaking out in riots. Kennedy appealed for calm and quoted Aeschylus, reminding his audience to to “tame the savageness of man and to make gentle the life of this world.”
Robert Kennedy would himself be dead a few months later. One is left only able to imagine what the world would have looked like if there were more pictures of this story to tell.