We Buried Two Remarkable Social Reformers, Martin Luther King, Jr. (Age 39) and Robert F. Kennedy (Age 42), 50 Years Ago This Year

Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) would have turned 89 years old this year (born January 15, 1929) and Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) would have turned 93 years old this year (born November 20, 1925). Imagining what the United States, and perhaps the world, would be like today, if these two men had continued to “right social wrongs” for the past 50 years, is an inspiring topic.

Their lives became increasingly intertwined, and would have likely become more intertwined over the years, if they have lived to help bring solutions to the social ills of the last several decades.

MLK’s offensive against racial inequality through nonviolent resistance led to an expanded opposition towards poverty during the years before his assassination. Just before his death, MLK was in the midst of planning with supporters the Poor People’s Campaign, which sought to address national poverty. The campaign would dramatize the needs of the poor by uniting people of all races through an occupation in Washington, D.C. and demanding that the federal government pass a multi-billion anti-poverty package to help fulfill an “economic bill of rights” that demanded more opportunities for employment and affordable housing.

The assassination of MLK did not stop it. The occupation did happen and centered on Resurrection City, which was to be a “live-in” and not a “sit-in.” During May, thousands of demonstrators from all over the country lived in what amounted to a shantytown primarily made out of plywood and canvas. For six weeks, there were cries for economic justice for the poor until certain conditions, including rainy weather, ended the occupation. However, the Campaign helped fuel future efforts for racial equality and economic justice for the poor.

RFK’s offensive on racial inequality and poverty also heightened during the years before his assassination. Several months before the Poor People’s campaign and the establishment of Resurrection City, RFK asked Marian Wright Edelman to encourage MLK to bring the poor to Washington, D.C. because the Vietnam War was diverting the public’s attention from poverty and hunger.

When he announced his candidacy for President of the United States on March 16,1968, less than three months before his assassination, he declared

“I run to seek new policies – policies to end the bloodshed . . . in our cities, policies to close the gaps that now exist between black and white, between rich and poor, between young and old, in this country and around the rest of the world.”

He made urban and rural poverty a chief concern of his campaign.

The day after MLK was assassinated, RFK gave a speech entitled “The Mindless Menace of Violence.” Half way through the speech, he stated the following, which echoed MLK as did much of his entire speech

“For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.”

As it was with MLK, the country was shocked to hear of RFK’s assassinated just a couple of months later. As his funeral procession was en route to Arlington National Cemetery, it passed by Resurrection City as occupants looked on stunned, as did the rest of the country.

Upon the 50-year mark of the appalling assassinations of these two accomplished advocates, may we recall how they helped the generations of their time believe that many of them could right social wrongs and may we strive to do the same within the communities in which we live, work, worship, recreate, socialize, and serve.

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