1968 was one of those years you’d like to forget but feel impelled, almost obsessed, to remember. The casualties and deaths in Viet Nam were mounting with every passing day. Lyndon Johnson made his “I shall not seek, nor shall I accept” speech. The stock market experienced one of its inexplicable bubbles. And, of course, both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated but a few weeks apart. It’s been forty years. Historians, but even more so all of us, like to speculate on how different the things might be if someone of note had not left us. This is ever more the case when people of special gifts die in the prime of life. How would music or poetry be different had Mozart and Shelly survived into old age? Neither Martin King nor Bobby Kennedy had that kind of genius, but both embodied unmet potential, which is what made their violent deaths so traumatic, searing the spring of that year into our memories. To be sure any “what if” is pure speculation, but in these cases perhaps less so than with others. In my view, the world with King would not have been very different; with Kennedy it might have gone in a totally different direction.
When Martin King was slain in Memphis, he was already an iconic figure who had delivered his definitive speech. It wasn’t that the civil rights movement didn’t have a long way to go, but that he had already had provided it with sufficient fuel to make the trip. In fact, at the time of his death, he was already spending much of his energy on Viet Nam where his voice was important but not in the same way. There is little doubt that Barack Obama would not be headed for a possible nomination and election without what King did, especially with his emblematic “I have a dream” speech. But its unlikely that an African American would have come to this place any earlier even if he had lived. In some profound way, the martyred Martin, is probably vastly more powerful and influential than would Martin be in the fullness of his years. We take the dead seriously, while tending to dismiss or find fault with the living especially when they are purveyors of inconvenient truths. We can embrace selectively from the dead; we’re forced to see the blemishes of the living. The dead don’t make mistakes, don’t speak out of turn, don’t disappoint. We can and do control their narrative for our own purposes, which is exactly what we have done with Martin. In that sense, he still lives and has been with us all the way to where we are.
In contrast, at death Bobby Kennedy was still unfinished business. Unlike Martin, whose ideological train had left the station, Bobby’s had yet to be boarded. Much more so than King, he was a-work-in progress who had been transformed by his life’s experiences from the Joe McCarthy staffer and Cold Warrior into a committed proponent of the underdog and opponent of what he had come to believe was a disastrous and misguided war. His campaign was about ending it and changing the direction of the country. He had not won the nomination, but seemed on his way to doing so. Had he lived the rancor of the Democratic convention in Chicago which split the party and the country would unlikely have been. Richard Nixon might not have been elected President. The war might have been brought to a speedy conclusion. As a result, the world we have today might well have looked very different. RFK in death is sorely missed, but whatever power he had went with him in that Los Angeles kitchen. There is memory but no myth, accomplishments but none of them “Martinesque”.
What was and what would have been are two different things. What was, is enduring, what might have been, ephemeral. Our unborn descendants are likely to remember Martin, will be able to recite his words much as we do those of Lincoln. He made all the difference he could and so much more. Bobby’s memory will dim with each passing year, another of those candidates who aspired to, but never reached, the Presidency. If he has any further lasting power, he owes to Jack, the myth he was near not the one he created for himself. In that sense, what happened in June, the unmet potential and the perhaps intended consequences, is much more poignant than what happened in April.
The late Joseph Campbell spent a lifetime exploring and teaching us about the power of myth. How right he was. I celebrate Martin Luther King and the power of his myth on this 40th anniversary of his life and what is because of him. I will grieve on June 6th for Robert F. Kennedy, for what might have been and what happened in its place. Take a moment and search for the talk he gave on this day informing a campaign stop audience of King’s death. Listen to it and you will understand both my celebration and the mourning still to come.