The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis on Monday played for the first time in public portions of an old tape recording that sheds new light on the complicated relationship between two iconic American political figures of the late 20th century: Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy.
The reel-to-reel tape was discovered in a Tennessee attic. It captures Dr. King talking to an interviewer about a phone call then-Sen. Kennedy made to King’s wife in October 1960, just prior to the presidential election.
At the time, King himself was in a Georgia jail. He had been arrested as part of a peaceful group attempting to integrate an Atlanta department store dining room. While the rest of the protesters had been released, King was still imprisoned on unrelated traffic charges.
Candidate Kennedy’s purpose was simply to express sympathy to Coretta Scott King over her husband’s plight. Many of his aides opposed the call as likely to lose votes in the South. But King was released from jail shortly afterwards, and reports of Kennedy’s concern energized African-Americans. Many historians feel it shifted crucial votes in Northern states away from Richard Nixon to give JFK his razor-thin victory.
“Now it is true that Sen. Kennedy did take a specific step,” King says on the tape. “He was in contact with officials in George during my arrest, and he called my wife, made a personal call and expressed his concern and said to her that he was working and trying to do something to make my release possible.”
“His brother [Robert Kennedy], who at that time was his campaign manager, also made direct contact with officials and even a judge in Georgia, so the Kennedy family did have some part, at least they expressed a concern and they did have some part in the release, but I must make it clear that many other forces worked to bring it about also,” added King on the tape, which was discovered by the son of the interviewer, a local businessman who had planned a book on civil rights history that was never completed.
JFK and MLK shared an era and a cause, but they were not close allies, as the tone of these remarks makes clear. They admired each other’s best qualities but were suspicious of the other’s flaws. On civil rights, they marched to different cadences.
Early in his administration, President Kennedy did not want to be seen as too eager to press for such moves as equal housing and voting protection for minorities, even though he saw such changes as inevitable. King was not invited to his inauguration or to an initial meeting of civil rights figures in the Oval Office.
King and other leaders did not think the new White House was doing all it could. Freedom Riders intent on ending segregation in interstate transportation spread through the South and began to force Kennedy’s hand. In May of 1961, Bobby Kennedy personally directed the deployment of federal marshals to protect King in a dangerous situation in Montgomery, Ala., where the civil rights leader had gone to preach to Freedom Rider supporters in Ralph Abernathy’s First Baptist Church.
White moderates had counseled African-Americans to remain patient for years; they were tired of waiting. In July 1962, King publicly urged the president to do more “in the area of moral persuasion by occasionally speaking out against segregation.”
Kennedy replied that his commitment to rights for all citizens was clear.
“But the president’s words did little to advance the cause of civil rights or ease the tensions that were erupting in sporadic violence,” wrote historian Robert Dallek in his JFK biography “An Unfinished Life.”
In June 1963, Kennedy unveiled sweeping civil rights legislation. Among other things, it promised the right to vote to all citizens with a grade-school education, and eliminated legal discrimination in public accommodations such as hotels and restaurants.
Kennedy remained hesitant to embrace the nation’s most prominent civil rights figure, however. In part this was due to allegations that a key King aide had communist ties, as well as the FBI’s notorious surveillance of King, which produced evidence of womanizing.
The FBI’s file on King’s sex life was dauntingly thick, Berl L. Bernhard, staff director of the US Commission on Civil Rights from 1958 to 1963, said in an oral history at the Kennedy Library.
“I do think the president was aware of it, and I know [darn] well some people in the administration were aware of it,” Mr. Bernhard said.
Kennedy himself had numerous affairs, of course. It’s unknown how he felt about the juxtaposition of his own recklessness with the King allegations.
In the summer of 1963 the administration was worried about the upcoming March on Washington to highlight civil rights. Unable to stop the planning, the White House recruited white union and labor groups to participate, to counter criticism that whites were not interested in sweeping civil rights changes.
King’s triumphant speech at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28 belied these worries. Afterwards the president met with civil rights leaders in the Oval Office, and among other things emphasized the difficulties he faced getting a civil rights bill through a Congress dominated by conservative Southern committee chairmen. JFK demurred when A. Philip Randolph asked him to lead a “crusade” to pass his legislation. What was needed, said JFK, was not such dramatic action but political leverage intended to win some Republican support for a bipartisan bill.
In the end the bill did pass. It is an enduring legacy of the Kennedy era. But it was muscled through those Southern-dominated committees by President Lyndon Johnson after Kennedy’s assassination.
In part it was LBJ’s legislative craftsmanship that carried the day. In part it was enabled by emotional appeals to the spirit of JFK.
“By this and other efforts of mourning, Kennedy acquired the Lincolnesque mantle of a unifying crusader who had bled against the thorn of race,” wrote historian Taylor Branch in “Parting the Waters,” his Pulitzer-winning chronicle of the civil rights movement. “Honest biographers later found it impossible to trace an engaged personality in proportion to the honor.”