Dual biography of two of the most ardent, inspiring, and complex champions of American civil rights.
The lives of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were destined to be forever coupled, not least because of their complicated relationships with Bobby’s brother, John F. Kennedy. Here, longtime Vanity Fair journalist Margolick (Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns, 2013, etc.) brings the same insight and cleareyed analysis that he has brought to his storied biographies and racially potent historical analyses. Although the lives of both men have been covered in detail, Margolick does a fine job of not only portraying crucial events—with the help of new interviews and newly unsealed histories and documents—but also plowing through the misty romanticism that still surrounds these men. “It’s instructive sometimes to study the pre-hagiographic histories of saints,” he writes. Here, Kennedy struggles to uncloak his reputation for being “ruthless” even as he has to shoulder the emotional burden of his brother’s assassination. King, meanwhile, “grew more famous, ambitious, revered and inspiring, loathed and threatening, angry, bitter, radical, desperate.” They lived their lives wary of each other, shadowboxing in the public arena, as illustrated by the dramatic historical photographs that punctuate the book. But via Margolick’s account, we learn these men had far more in common than even they thought, including struggles with depression that stand in stark contrast to the optimism they inspired in a nation. While there’s a fatalism that hangs over their arcs, it’s inspiring to see that both men were propelled, even to the end, by the causes of racial equality and social justice. “When these two young men were murdered, something died in all of us,” said civil rights icon John Lewis. “We were robbed of part of our future.”
The most telling line of this well-crafted and timely story comes from Lewis as well: “They were friends, and didn’t even know that they were friends.”