With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Why Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy Are More Relevant Now than They Have Been in Years

A half century after the assassinations of MLK and RFK, we need their visions. In the age of Trump, who offers us no more than his empty “Make America Great Again,” massive tax cuts for corporations and rich people, an Environmental Protection Agency that quickens environmental degradation, and his reportedly crude references to some poor nations as “shithole countries,” we need their dreams more than ever.

Even two conservative columnists, David Brooks and Ross Douthat—both very critical of Trump— recognize the need for a compelling American vision, though they would probably not agree that MLK and RFK are two of our most valuable sources to inspire it.

Brooks links this new vision to “a new historical story.” Many of us, he states, once embraced the story of America as the land of opportunity, one to which our ancestors came, having “left oppression, crossed the wilderness, came to the promised land.” But, he continues, “for people under 40, that’s just not their story. They just don’t buy it. They don’t think there’s a promised land. Too much oppression. Too many historical sins. So we have to come up with a new historical story. And that’s a challenge for us right now.” As Brooks states on another occasion, “What’s needed is an act of imagination, somebody who can tell us what our goal is, and offer an ideal vision of what the country and the world should be.”

Douthat recognizes that Trump’s victory represents an attempt by “white-male-Protestant-European protagonists” to “restore their story to pre-eminence.” But he also admits that “it’s a restoration attempt that can’t succeed, because the country has changed too much, and because that national narrative required correction.” In other words, we need a new national vision, one that links our past, present, and future.

On this Martin Luther King Day of 2018, where better to seek inspiration for “an act of imagination,” an ideal national vision than to MLK and RFK? The latter spoke eloquently upon King’s assassination and just months before he himself was gunned down: “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 and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.” (If he were speaking today, he might well add “whether they be citizens or whether they be illegal immigrants.”)

Although in honor of MLK Day, most of this essay will be devoted to King, just a few more points about RFK and his vision.

1) He combined an idealistic view with pragmatic realism. The title of RFK’s 1967 book is To Seek a Newer World, a phrase he borrowed from one of his favorite poems, Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” In his book, Kennedy affirms his “belief that idealism, high aspirations, and deep convictions are not incompatible with the most practical and efficient of programs.” In chapters on youth, race, nuclear controls, relations with Latin America and China, and the Vietnam War, he attempted to demonstrate the validity of his belief. In a new Forward to the 2002 edition of his RFK biography, Arthur Schlesinger wrote that he “joined idealism in his purposes with realism in his methods. He was a man of passionate conviction. He was at the same time a tough and experienced politician who understood the uses of power and government.”

2) RFK was a unifier. As Newsweek noted in 1968 after RFK’s victory in the Democratic Indiana primary: “In a painful era of racial polarization in the U.S., he managed to bridge the chasm separating the gut elements of the traditional Democratic coalition. He swept the Negro vote while at the same time piling up big leads among backlashy white workingmen—the same group that whistled Dixie for Alabama's George Wallace in the primary four years ago” (and overwhelmingly voted for Trump in 2016). In addition, RFK appealed strongly to Hispanics throughout the USA.

But if RFK demonstrated the greater political skill in unifying blacks, white workingmen, and Hispanics, MLK soared above him in his visionary rhetoric, in his ability to imagine a better future for Americans. Who can forget his “I Have a Dream Speech”?

I have a dream that one day down in Alabama. . . little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. . . . With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together. . . . When we allow freedom [to] ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

And his vision was not just limited to racial harmony. King was a longtime admirer of Gandhi and his teachings on non-violent resistance, and he dreamed of a more non-violent, less impoverished, and less materialistic world.

In 1964, the Nobel Prize committee recognized his commitment to peace when they bestowed their annual prize upon him, and this was before we escalated our involvement in Vietnam, which prompted his eloquent protest in his Riverside Church Speech of April 1967. In it he demonstrated that he possessed the imagination, empathy, and compassion needed to free us from the shackles of militarism, which is fueled by our nationalism. What other American has empathized so compassionately with a foreign people as he did with the Vietnamese in this speech?

Now they languish under our bombs and consider us, not their fellow Vietnamese, the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land . . . into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they must move on or be destroyed by our bombs.

So they go, primarily women and children and the aged. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals with at least twenty casualties from American firepowe r for one Vietcong-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.

What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them. . . . We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. . . . We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men.

In this same speech he connected our racism and militarism to his insight that our national values need revising. “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. . . .We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” How wise King was to see the centrality of values to our national character and politics, and how wise he was to identify militarism and materialism (as well as racism) as among our greatest national blemishes!

Although MLK’s efforts and dreams to combat racism and promote peace are his main legacies to us a half century after his death, we should not forget his more sweeping criticism of our values and a capitalist culture that often puts profits and possessions before people. As he noted less than a week before his Riverside speech, “the evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and the evils of racism.”

In making such remarks King continued in a tradition mentioned years earlier by historian Henry Steele Commager, who also opposed the Vietnam War and spoke to the Riverside attendees after King’s April speech. In his The American Mind: An Interpretation of American Thought and Character since the 1880s (1950), the historian had written: “Who, in the half century from Cleveland to Franklin Roosevelt, celebrated business enterprise or the acquisitive society . . . ? Almost all the major writers were critical of those standards, or contemptuous of them. . . . Most authors portrayed an economic system disorderly and ruthless, wasteful and inhuman, unjust alike to workingmen, investors, and consumers, politically corrupt and morally corrupting.” In what remained of the first half century, very few novelists revised “the judgment which had been passed on the acquisitive society. . . . The novelists remained irreconcilable.”

Unfortunately both MLK and RFK have now been dead almost fifty years, and no one at present in our public and political arena, certainly not President Trump, has captured the national imagination with a compelling and unifying vision. But remembering the idealism of King and Robert Kennedy should at least give us hope that such a vision is still possible and that politicians could still be influenced by it.