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King hoped to enlighten Kennedy on civil rights

Posted: Oct. 16, 2017 | Tags: African-Americans

Kennedy and King


John F. Kennedy’s relationships with staunch segregationist George Wallace and Mississippi Gov. J.P. Coleman made him an unlikely presidential candidate for black America, Steven Levingston, author of “Kennedy and King: The President, the Pastor and the Battle Over Civil Rights," said in a recent talk at the Newseum.

Kennedy was concerned with courting black voters during his run for the presidency in 1960 because, in addition to these relationships, “he had never been outspoken on civil rights,” said Levingston, the nonfiction book editor at The Washington Post.  

Kennedy eventually reached out to actor Harry Belafonte for an endorsement in the hopes black voters would follow his lead. Belafonte, in turn, urged Kennedy to reach out to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. because he “has the soul of black America in his hand.” 

And after meeting King, Kennedy hoped for an endorsement, Levingston said, but never received it because of King’s strict nonpartisan stance.  

Kennedy eventually earned the Southern black vote, though, after calling King’s wife, Coretta, while King was in jail on trumped-up traffic charges. The call came only after his advisers urged him to do so and stood in contrast to his opponent, Richard Nixon, doing nothing. Kennedy, also lobbied behind the scenes for King's release. 

King mentioned the 90-second phone call after he was out on bail, and the story galvanized black voters, who would be “responsible for his victory in many states,” Levingston said. 

But Kennedy never supported civil rights in the way King hoped he would.

Still, King maintained the relationship because he wanted Kennedy to understand that he had a debt to pay to black Americans, Levingston said.

King “was trying to influence a man who was removed” from the realities of black America, Levingston said. 

Graphic images of police officers attacking nonviolent protesters eventually moved Kennedy to make public statements in support of civil rights. His 1963 “Report to the American People on Civil Rights” signaled a key turning point in the administration's stance, according to Levingston. 

Historians credit the Kennedy administration for being the first to back the civil rights movement. Robert F. Kennedy, the president’s brother and attorney general, was “very instrumental” in pushing his brother toward supporting King, Levingston said. 

After listening to the 1963 speech, King sent Kennedy a telegram praising it as one of the best he ever heard, Levingston said.

Hours after Kennedy's speech, a Klansman killed activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi. Levingston said Evers’ murder highlights a trend of progression and regression around civil rights in the U.S.

“We had a black president a little while ago” and since then, there has been “a revival of white supremacists,” he said.  

Levingston made little mention of Jacqueline Kennedy in his book because there is scant information on her relationship with the civil rights movement, he said. But after "Kennedy and King" was published, Levingston discovered the first lady had created and integrated a school Caroline attended at the White House. 

Levingston also said the first lady was upset that the president was assassinated by a “random wacko person,” paraphrasing what someone told him Jackie said, and not for honorable work such as civil rights. This shows she was “quite conscious and thinking about what was going on” in the world, he said.

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