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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

Spokane author introduces new generation to 1960s leaders’ call for justice

Claire Rudolf Murphy is author of 17 books for children and teens.

On April 4, Claire Rudolf Murphy will be in Indianapolis for the 50th anniversary commemoration of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the speech Senator Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy (Bobby) gave at a campaign rally there that evening.

Bobby had been campaigning before huge crowds at Notre Dame and Ball State University earlier in the day.  As he boarded the plane to Indianapolis, he learned Martin had been assassinated.

Bobby spoke from a truck bed, telling the crowd of blacks and whites gathered in a black neighborhood of Martin’s assassination.  Teens who saw him that night told Claire years later that he was pale when he spoke.  Claire had traveled there two years ago to research her book on the two leaders.

“It was a profound speech.  He said he knew the loss of a family member. Speaking from his heart, he asked, ‘What kind of country are we going to be?  What are we going to do?’” said Claire.
Indianapolis did not erupt in violence as did other cities, she reported.
 
Two months later, Bobby was assassinated on June 5, after he won the California primary. 

There is a King-Kennedy Memorial on the site where he spoke. At this year’s commemoration, Claire will meet Kerry Kennedy, Bobby’s daughter, and Congressman John Lewis, who had joined Bobby’s campaign.

“The words of Martin and Bobby were not tweets or quick responses.  They wrote most of their own speeches,” said Claire, explaining that because she writes for teens, she needs to give historical background.

That speech opens her book for young adults, Martin and Bobby: A Journey to Justice, about two 1960s leaders who influenced her and the world. The book will be published in October. 

Claire is the author of 17 fiction and nonfiction books for children and teens.

“I’m passionate about the civil rights stories of the 1960s and I’m proud of young protesters today speaking out against violence and shootings.  To oppose school shootings should not be divisive,” she said.

“Their campaign reminds me of the young civil rights activists 50 years ago who forced the country to listen.  The youth will vote.  The children will lead us,” added Claire, reminding that Martin was 39 when he died and Bobby was 42.

Martin is more than his “I Have a Dream” speech.  In the five years after that speech at the March on Washington, he spoke out on ending poverty and the Vietnam War.

Although Bobby and Martin were from different worlds, Claire writes about how they respected each other.

“Both trusted in God. Right now we can lose hope seeing what is happening in Washington, D.C., but like Martin and Bobby 50 years ago, we need to value every life,” she said.

Claire believes that as Martin and Bobby stayed faithful, “we should not give up” but know there is “healing in coming together to face challenges.”

Even though her family discussed politics, civil rights and women’s rights at the dinner table, Claire said she did not understand the work of King, until one day in high school at Holy Names Academy in Spokane, Sister Margaret put up a bulletin board: “Christ, the King!  King, the Christ!”

“I thought, ‘Wow!’ King lived the Gospels, welcoming children and the poor, and working for peace,” she said, “just like Jesus in the Gospel stories I grew up with.”

When Bobby was killed, her mother woke her up and said, “Claire, history is being made.” Her family sat in front of the TV and watched the chaos.

Claire believes, “We have much to learn from history.  The violence and dissonance of 1968 resonate today. 

“Martin believed in nonviolence despite the violence he saw,” said Claire.

She majored in history at Santa Clare University, graduating in 1973 and earning teaching credentials at the University of California in Berkeley.

From there, she joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and went to St. Mary’s Mission in Western Alaska to teach at a Jesuit boarding school for Yup’ik Eskimo students.  She met her husband there.  They married and raised their two children in Fairbanks, where she taught middle school and high school, until she began writing books in 1991.  She moved back to Spokane in 1998.

While Claire begins the book, Martin and Bobby: A Journey to Justice, with their last days in 1968, she looks back at their lives and the civil rights movement as a way to give background young readers may not have.

As part of the research she did for the book, Claire spent time in Indianapolis and talked by phone to people in Memphis, interviewing people who were teens when they heard Bobby and Martin speak in those cities. 

They told her of their longing for leadership and community today.

“In March, Bobby had declared that he would run for President.  Martin was planning the Poor People’s March for April in Washington, D.C.

By 1968, they were on the same page,” Claire said.  “Both men were against the Vietnam War because it took resources from the poor.”

Earlier in the 1960s, Martin had pushed President John Kennedy (JFK) to send federal troops to protect the Freedom Riders in the South and other activists, and to promote the Civil Rights Act. That meant Bobby, as attorney general, would have to order troops to protect civil rights workers who were challenging segregation.

Bobby did not personally experience segregation or racism, until the University of Virginia refused to play Harvard’s team because it had a black player.  Harvard would not leave that player out, so Virginia, not wanting to give up its homecoming game, relented thanks to Bobby’s efforts, she said.

Claire said Bobby understood prejudice and segregation intellectually because of experiences of his Irish Catholic grandparents. He knew racism was wrong, but wanted white Southern Democrat votes to re-elect his brother.

Bobby convinced JFK to support the Civil Rights Act in June 1963, and JFK sent federal troops to integrate the University of Alabama.

After JFK was assassinated in November 1963, Claire said, Bobby no longer needed to protect his brother. Out of his grief over the loss of his brother, Bobby looked at what he believed: that all people have value.

As a Senator in New York, he reached out to neighbors of color in the city, to Cesar Chavez in California and to poor people in Appalachia.

When President Lyndon Johnson escalated the Vietnam War, Bobby decided to run for President.

“During his Presidential campaign, he told people what he believed, not what would get him elected,” said Claire.  “His words then are words we need today on behalf of immigrants, the poor and students shot in schools and innocent people on the streets.”

Since 2008, along with writing children’s books, Claire has been on the faculty of Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., teaching new writers in a “low-residency model” masters in fine arts in writing for children and young adults. They go for two weeks of classes in residency in January and July, and then she mentors students in writing during the rest of the semester.

She wrote early books about Fairbanks as a gold rush town and about the gold-rush women. 

Marching with Aunt Susan, about Susan B. Anthony, is one of her books about people in American history who persevered despite the odds.

Another recent book travels through the history of protest in America using “My Country Tis of Thee,” with verses from abolition, suffrage, Civil War and civil rights times. 

“We need to slow down, listen, pray and think,” she said.
 
When Martin and Bobby: A Journey to Justice is out in the fall, Claire plans to give presentations.


For information, call 924-8994 or email clairerudolfmurphy@gmail.com.





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