Declining to heed Kennedy’s men and curtail protests, King was arrested with a group of students at an Atlanta sit-in on Oct. 19, 1960, scant weeks before the excruciatingly close election. King refused to post bail. He remained behind bars as the Ku Klux Klan marched through Atlanta streets and Kennedy and Nixon held their final televised debate.
Authorities produced a 5-month-old traffic ticket from a neighboring county, and King was sentenced to four months’ hard labor. By the next morning King was in a maximum-security prison. Many feared he would soon be killed.
Over the objections of Kennedy’s brother and campaign manager, Robert Kennedy, who wanted to steer clear of the matter, an aide managed to convince the candidate to place a sympathetic call to King’s pregnant wife, Coretta.
News of Kennedy’s call was leaked to reporters. Yet King was still in jail — until Robert Kennedy called the judge. Suddenly, bail was granted and King was freed.
The story of the Kennedys’ involvement made headlines in black newspapers nationwide. King issued a statement saying he was ‘‘deeply indebted to Senator Kennedy,’’ although he remained nonpartisan. The Kennedy campaign printed tens of thousands of pamphlets describing the episode, and distributed them in black churches across the country on the Sunday before the election.
Kennedy, who got 78 percent of the black vote, won the election by one of the narrowest margins in U.S. history.
‘‘In an election that close,’’ says Villanova University professor David Barrett, ‘‘you could make a case that Kennedy’s call to Coretta mattered enough to win.’’
Booth, the Ohio pastor, has pondered Kennedy’s motivations.
‘‘I don’t know if a large number of African-Americans thought critically about Kennedy’s shrewdness,’’ Booth says. ‘‘He was very much courting that Southern vote. Politicians do what politicians do. The political reality may not always be the ethical reality.’’
As president, Kennedy’s top priority was foreign policy. There were enormous Cold War challenges — from the Soviet Union and Vietnam to Cuba, site of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and of a crisis over Soviet missiles that threatened to trigger nuclear war.
Meanwhile, at home, the boiling civil rights movement could not be ignored.
‘‘Freedom Riders’’ seeking to integrate Southern bus lines were mercilessly beaten. Whites rioted to prevent the black student James Meredith from enrolling at the University of Mississippi; two people were killed after Kennedy sent in Army forces to ensure Meredith’s admission.
In Birmingham, Ala., police loosed clubs, dogs and fire hoses on peaceful protesters, and a church bombing killed four black girls. Images of the violence shamed America before the world.
As blood flowed, Kennedy moved cautiously toward civil rights legislation.
Publicly, Kennedy’s administration was reluctant to intervene in the Southern violence unless federal law was being flouted. Privately, Kennedy’s men urged protest leaders to slow down and avoid confrontation.
Many saw the administration’s stance as aloof or even helpless. Earlier, after Kennedy had disowned proposals that were part of the Democrats’ 1960 campaign platform, NAACP president Roy Wilkins said Kennedy was offering ‘‘a cactus bouquet.’’
Mack, the civil rights activist, was at the Democratic convention where those promises were made. He recalls being highly frustrated with Kennedy’s pace once he became president.
‘‘We were deeply committed young people who were out to change the system. Down in the South we were fighting segregation in all its original ugliness,’’ Mack says.
But amid the frustration, Mack says, there was recognition among movement leaders that Kennedy was politically constrained.
‘‘He had to deal with some segregationists,’’ Mack says.
Kennedy needed some of those segregationists to advance his foreign policy agenda, says Barrett, the Villanova professor. He also had to think about reelection, and not alienating white Southern voters.
‘‘Civil rights simply was not a top priority,’’ says Barrett, who studies the Kennedy administration and teaches a course on the civil rights movement.
‘‘He was busy with so many other issues, especially foreign policy issues, he didn’t give it the kind of energy and attention that we might wish in retrospect,’’ he says.
Civil rights was a top priority — in a different way — for J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI.
Hoover believed the growing civil rights movement was under Communist influence and a threat to national security. He closely monitored King and others in the movement with surveillance, informants and wiretaps.Continued...