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Rebel Spirits: Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. at the New-York Historical Society

February 22, 2018 - by Alison Durkee
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In the midst of the chaos and social upheaval of the 1960s, perhaps no figures epitomize the era better than the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. The iconic figures represent the different sides of the decade, from the Kennedys' idealistic “Camelot” to King’s hard-fought battle against racial injustice, yet their lives and careers would also directly intersect. That intersection is now at the heart of Rebel Spirits, a new exhibition at the New-York Historical Society that explores the two distinct, yet often overlapping, paths of King and Attorney General-turned-Senator and presidential front-runner Robert F. Kennedy.

Rebel Spirits Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr

Photos: Lawrence Schiller 

Rebel Spirits: Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. is a photo-centric exhibition that puts the two leaders’ lives and careers in conversation with each othereven when it’s clear that the two largely avoided publicly conversing themselves. Curated by photojournalist Lawrence Schiller, whose photos are among those on view, the exhibition largely consists of a series of photographs from the time. The images chronicle the two men’s careers in the 1960s, discussing King’s fight for social justice and Kennedy’s more complicated alliance with the progressive cause. Though the two men’s lives did directly intersect at timesKing endorsed Kennedy’s presidential run and Kennedy helped to secure King’s release from a Georgia prison in 1960, for instancethe two men were careful to maintain their distance, and the exhibition only contains one photograph of the two together. “Much of what happened between them occurred privately,” the introduction to the exhibition notes, “mostly in unrecorded phone calls, beyond the reach of journalists, historians, and photographers.” 

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Yet as photographs and artifacts from the time on display in the exhibition show, the Kennedys and King became intertwined in popular memory as collaborators in the fight for social change. One woman documented in the exhibition held up a sign with King and the two Kennedy brothers in 1970, while a commemorative envelope on display from 1979 immortalizes RFK and King together. Rebel Spirits effectively interrogates this alliance, making it clear why the two men would become joined in the eyes of history while still exploring the nuances of their often-fraught relationship. The exhibition is particularly adept at showing the complicated spot Kennedy found himself in, illustrating how his support of social justice, and King himself, was often tempered and complicated by the political realities of the time.

Robert F. Kennedy

Described by curator Schiller as a “20-page Life magazine essay,” the exhibition provides a visually striking look at the 1960s, with bold photographs that intimately illustrate the two mens’ lives while also documenting the broader Civil Rights movement of the time. Accompanying artifacts also help to give a greater insight into the two leaders, both with cultural artifacts that document their public perception and private letters and ephemera that give a glimpse into the two men’s minds. The chronological arrangement of the photos takes viewers through the 1960s, putting King and Kennedy in conversation with each other rather than grouping each man’s life by itself. The collection of photographs exists more as a collection of moments rather than a cohesive narrative, however, and the exhibition perhaps could have benefitted from a stronger organizational structure that charted each man’s path. Of course, nothing about the central relationship on display itself is straightforward, and visitors will gain a strong sense of how each man took on the anxieties and troubles of the time in their own distinct way.

Those hoping to learn even more about the two men can attend a slate of upcoming programs at the New-York Historical Society. On March 7, the museum will present a special preview screening of CNN’s American Dynasties: The Kennedys, followed by a panel discussion with historians and CNN’s John Berman. Bobby Kennedy will be the subject of a May 21 talk with MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews. King’s battles with the Supreme Court in the 1967 case Walker v. City of Birmingham will be the subject of the talk The Supreme Court vs. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 23. The exhibition is also being presented in conjunction with the book The Promise and the Dream by David Margolick, which documents the two leaders’ intersecting lives in greater detail and will be released on April 4. 

Rebel Spirits: Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. is on view at the New-York Historical Society through May 20, 2018. For more information, visit nyhistory.org.

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