Our Voices

‘They are aligned and joined forever’: A Harvard Club conversation on the legacies of Martin Luther King Jr. and RFK

Sit-ins at Woolworths in the south. The murders of Tyre Nichols, George Floyd and others. How does the past inform the way we approach civil rights today? Kerry Kennedy, president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, and Dr. Russell Wigginton, president of the National Civil Rights Museum, took on these topics and more in an April 4 Harvard Club conversation on the transformative legacies and influence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

The following are excerpts from their conversation, moderated by Natosha Reid Rice, edited for brevity:

Reid Rice: I’d like to situate this conversation in 1968, where the separate and unequalness of our society was great. Where we suffered the loss of two great men who are visionaries; who are dreamers.

Wigginton: In 1968, we were on the heels of significant legislative changes, including the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Acts. The opportunity to, at least on paper, fully participate in this experience called America for all people was in its infancy. Today, (these moments) are still uncomfortable in 2023. And so when you think about the leadership, the visionary and courageous leadership of Sen. Kennedy and Dr. King, we can never get away from those moments. They are aligned and joined forever.

Reid Rice: It was amazing to me how Robert F. Kennedy’s Mindless Menace of Violence speech could be just as compelling today. I was really struck by the words he used about the dying of our democracy. Could you reflect a little bit on that?

Kennedy: You look at what’s happening in our country, with democracy today … and if you looked at my father’s entire campaign, the main theme of that campaign was healing. And when asked why he was running for President, he said, “because I believe that the United States should stand for peace, justice and compassion towards those who suffer.” It’s an extraordinary statement, but I think it’s very, very important also to look back at those days, because people feel so bereft today and are so undone by the challenges that we face both globally and to our democracy at home. But you know, back in 1968, imagine 125 cities in flames. Imagine a situation where the biggest icons of the last five years of our country had all been killed. We have difficulties now and ahead, but we’ll get through this. And I think it’s important to look at history and know there’s a path forward.

Reid Rice: When we think about that looking forward, we also think about legacy. How would you describe the legacy of Dr. King?

Wigginton: Complex. It’s important to remember that at the time of his death a Gallup Poll gave him a 75 percent disapproval rating from people across this country. It’s important for people to know not everybody was celebrating him in 1968. Dr. King was 39 years old when he was killed. It’s important for people to listen to his I Have A Dream speech, but alongside, they need to read a Letter from Birmingham Jail. What is important for all of us to do is to look at King and Kennedy in the full complexity of who they were, and recognize that most of us have different dimensions.

Reid Rice: How are we creating a pipeline, a pool for movement leaders, so that we can prevent the decay of our democracy? And find ways to bring opposite sides together during this divisive political discourse?

Kennedy: I started working in human rights in 1988 and, at that time, Latin America was under military dictatorships, and all of Eastern Europe was at the height of Communism, and South Africa was under apartheid. Women’s rights were not on the international agenda. Today, all of those things have changed. All of those changes happened not because governments wanted them to, or militaries or big corporations wanted them, but because it was the work of determined, everyday people coming together to harness the dream of freedom and make it come true. That’s what human rights is about. That’s what the struggle for civil rights is about. I feel so inspired by so many who are really making revolutionary change in our country today.