The Intertwined Fates of Martin Luther King and the Kennedy Brothers

The Intertwined Fates of Martin Luther King and the Kennedy Brothers
American Values 2024 | January 16, 2024

Each year on Martin Luther King Day, people across the political system genuflect to the memory of the great man. The political establishment of this country would like to make Martin Luther King’s memory into a commercial for American Exceptionalism. They typically focus on his “I Have a Dream” speech and end the story with the successful passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

In truth, the life and death of Martin Luther King are much more powerful than the benevolent but overly simple image that is typically presented. Additionally, King’s life is historically intertwined with the lives and deaths of the Kennedy brothers—John and Robert.

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During the 1960 presidential race, Martin Luther King was arrested while leading a group of demonstrators seeking to integrate the restaurant of an Atlanta department store. The mayor of Atlanta, a moderate, intervened by making a deal with black leaders that would free King and the others “in response to [then] Senator Kennedy’s personal intervention.” JFK was not even yet aware of the incident, and when first informed, he issued only a noncommittal response through his staff. Subsequently, King did not get released from jail and was instead given an unreasonable sentence of six months hard labor in a Georgia prison.

After the Kennedy brothers tried and failed to secure King’s release from jail without upsetting Georgia Democrat supporters, MLK was taken to a prison in “cracker country” where Coretta King feared he would be lynched. JFK eventually called Mrs. King to reassure her. Robert Kennedy, aware that there could be political consequences for intervening, phoned the judge and was able to secure King’s release.

Coming ten days before the election, the effect of the Kennedy brothers’ calls was dramatic. The black vote broke decisively in favor of JFK. The brothers’ decision to help Dr. King may have won JFK the presidency. The most impactful switch came from Martin Luther King Sr. He switched to backing JFK after previously being part of a group of black Southern Baptist preachers opposing Kennedy for his Catholicism. Speaking of the elder King’s anti-Catholicism, Kennedy said to an aide, “Imagine Martin Luther King having a bigot for a father!” before adding “Well, we all have fathers don’t we?”

Eight years later, in 1968, much in the country had changed. Yes, the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act ended Jim Crow, but the country was in unprecedented turmoil over a disastrous war in Vietnam and racial strife which had led to riots in major cities. President Kennedy and Malcom X had both been assassinated, but Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were still alive. Their paths were converging in a way that neither could have foreseen in 1960.

While JFK did much more than any previous administration to advance civil rights, the relationship between the Kennedy brothers and civil rights leaders was fraught with complications. From the perspective of radicals like James Baldwin, the Kennedys were too timid and incrementalist in their approach. For reasons anyone should be able to understand, black leaders were outraged over being denied justice for hundreds of years after arriving on these shores. They did not want to wait any longer.

For the Kennedys, they had other concerns in addition to civil rights. JFK had decided to run for president in large part because he was horrified by the prospect of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Despite this, during the Cuban Missile Crisis the insane orthodoxy of the Cold War almost led to a nuclear war between the Soviets and the US. Kennedy had even been forced to rebuff a Pentagon plan to launch a preemptive nuclear strike on the USSR. By the summer of 1963, JFK was confronting those two reactionary pillars of the US regime: Jim Crow and the US war machine itself. He gave speeches on back-to-back days in June, calling for the end of Jim Crow and for a reexamination of the Cold War. In other words, JFK was calling for the end of segregation and for world peace—all just months before he was killed.

As president, John Kennedy had to navigate an entrenched Cold War structure in Washington. He initially chose to accommodate reactionary and even sinister figures like Allen Dulles and J. Edgar Hoover. He did eventually fire Dulles and would likely have fired Hoover in a second term. Adding to the sensitivity of civil rights for JFK is the fact that the issue could cost him the election. Given the power of the US war machine with its nuclear “doomsday machine,” the outcome of US presidential elections was something with implications for millions of people—perhaps for the whole of human civilization. At the same time, Kennedy was in the difficult position of relying on a political party with a segregationist wing. The Democrats simultaneously had the most progressive elected US leaders, like JFK, while also having the most reactionary faction, Southern segregationists. Ultimately, JFK chose to side with justice over his party; he backed civil rights.

By 1968, Martin Luther King was well aware that his civil rights victories had been incomplete. In April of 1967, King publicly came out against the Vietnam War. He had also begun speaking more critically about the power structure of the United States. He focused on the need to overcome the “evil triplets” of militarism, racism, and economic exploitation.

Similarly, Senator Robert F. Kennedy had entered the 1968 presidential race on a campaign platform based on peace, racial justice, and economic justice. In late 1967, through Marian Wright, Robert F. Kennedy passed a message to MLK which began King’s final crusade, the multiracial Poor People’s Campaign. Said RFK to Wright at the end of their conversation, “Tell Dr. King to bring the people to Washington.” The plan was for King to lead supporters to Washington and to stay there until the government agreed to take the money being spent on killing in Vietnam and shift it to US anti-poverty programs.

Key figures around King as well as members of the King family believe that this Poor People’s Campaign was the motive behind King’s assassination. James Lawson, a longtime friend of King’s and an SCLC organizer testified at a civil trial that the King family had brought against a confessed King assassination conspirator. Lawson stated that King had made deadly enemies in Washington with his famous Riverside Church speech, which denounced the Vietnam War and described the US government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Speaking of MLK’s Vietnam stance and the Poor People’s Campaign, Lawson said, “I have no doubt that the government viewed all this seriously enough to plan his assassination.”

Dexter King, the son of the slain reverend, also testified at the trial about the death of his father. He summed up the grim truth by stating, “If what you are saying goes against what certain people believe you should be saying, you will be dealt with—[not overtly, but] you will be dealt with covertly. The result is the same.” Dexter King insisted that the family was not looking for revenge:

We’re not in this to make heads roll. We’re in this to use the teachings that my father taught us in terms of nonviolent reconciliation. It works…. We know that it works…. So … we’re not looking to put people in prison. What we’re looking to do is get the truth out so that this nation can learn and know officially…. If the family of the victim, … if we’re saying we’re willing to forgive and embark upon a process that allows for reconciliation, why can’t others?

The King family never fully received the justice they sought. The US government refused the family’s request to reopen the investigation and/or disclose the truth of the assassination.

Alone among the 2024 presidential contenders, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has signed a joint statement calling for an American Truth and Reconciliation Committee to review and disclose the US role in the MLK assassination and the other three major US political assassinations of the 1960s. President John Kennedy and Malcolm X were killed before MLK; Senator Robert Kennedy was killed months after. All four of these men were killed by the same forces for doing the same thing. They were each attempting to steer the US away from the path of war, empire, and exploitation. As James Baldwin wrote,

Malcolm and Martin, beginning at what seemed to be very different points…and espousing, or representing, very different philosophies, found that…by the time each met his death there was practically no difference between them. Before either had had time to think their new positions through, or, indeed, to do more than articulate them, they were murdered.

Very shortly after JFK was assassinated, Robert and Jackie Kennedy sent a messenger to Moscow to tell the Soviets that they knew the USSR was not behind the shots in Dallas. They knew it was a domestic plot. The new administration would not continue JFK’s policies. Resuming the quest for peace would have to wait until RFK could get into the White House. By the time that RFK was poised to do that, he had essentially converged with King’s mission for peace and justice. And as Baldwin points out, King at the time of his death had arrived politically at the place where Malcolm X had been when he was assassinated.

As another Martin Luther King Day passes, we should reflect on the life and legacy of the great man. Rather than allowing him to be a symbol that legitimizes “the world’s greatest purveyor of violence,” we should tell the world that the American regime robbed us of this towering figure because the US Empire would not accommodate his democratic vision of peace and justice.

By assassinating the most powerful leaders seeking peace and justice, the US regime changed history and essentially robbed the country of its democracy. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. famously warned, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Instead of heeding calls like this from King, the US government covertly assassinated him. We must follow the King family’s courageous example. We must demand American Truth and Reconciliation.

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