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John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Phone Call That Changed History

Jun 20, 2017
Ideas

Before dawn, on Wednesday, October 26, 1960, Martin Luther King Jr. was sleeping in a prison cell in DeKalb County, Georgia, when sheriff deputies aimed their flashlight beams into his face and barked at him to get up. They handcuffed him, shackled his legs, and hustled him out of the cell. It was 4 a.m. Hurried along, he asked repeatedly for an explanation, but the men said nothing. With a terrible foreboding, King soon found himself seated in the back of a police car rolling into the night; the only light came from the headlamps piercing the darkness.

Like all black men, King feared the chilling portent of a late-night drive into the countryside; it had happened to others, the stories he’d heard were horrific.

At home in Atlanta, Coretta King knew nothing of her husband’s ominous ride. She was six months pregnant with their third child, and she had already had an emotional week.

King hadn’t wanted to join the student-led sit-in. But the band of youths, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, insisted. The SNCC was well-organized and impatient. Its target was one of Atlanta’s venerable institutions, Rich’s department store; its goal: to desegregate the store’s snack bars and restaurants. The young activists urged King to come along—and go to jail with them—to draw attention to their campaign. King advised the students to hold off until after the presidential election now just weeks away; but the students saw an opportunity to force the candidates to address the issue of segregation. If King were arrested with dozens of young protesters, then both contenders would have no choice but to speak out. “We thought that with Dr. King being involved in it,” said student leader Lonnie C. King, “we would really see where these guys stand.” The students’ passion—and conscience—were impossible for Martin Luther King Jr. to ignore.

On that early Wednesday morning, Martin Luther King Jr. had no idea where the two deputies were taking him. An hour passed, and he realized he was deep into “cracker” country where no one protested a lynching. By dawn, King discovered he had been granted a less evil fate as the squad car turned into the maximum security state prison in Reidsville.

But his danger was far from over. If he were put to hard labor, as the judge had ordered, he would work side by side in a road gang with ruthless white criminals, many of them killers who had nothing to lose and everything to gain—national notoriety and prison respect—by murdering a black celebrity.

On that same Wednesday morning, Senator John Kennedy phoned the governor of Georgia, Ernest Vandiver. Some quiet, back-channel way had to be found to free the civil rights leader. Kennedy was motivated by his outrage, by his sympathy for the King family, and by bald political calculation. In a meeting with Kennedy just weeks earlier, King had urged the senator to take some dramatic action to prove to blacks that his commitment to their cause was genuine. His moment had arrived. If Kennedy were able to play a decisive role in King’s release, the black community was likely to reward him with an outpouring of support. But if he acted on King’s behalf, he risked a vicious backlash from Southern whites. The senator had to walk a fine line: show decency to a black man without alienating the white community.

During the presidential campaign, Kennedy raised suspicions in the black community by his blatant courtship of Southern white support. After the Democratic National Convention in July, he began shoring up his reputation among Southern leaders, meeting privately with them to allay fears that he would be an aggressive civil rights president. Kennedy promised Governor Vandiver that as president he would never use federal troops to force Georgia to desegregate its schools. In return, Vandiver declared his preference for the senator and vowed to lead Georgia into the Kennedy column on Election Day.

Now, some three months later, early in the morning at the governor’s mansion in Atlanta, the telephone jangled on the bedside table, waking Vandiver and his wife. On the line was Senator John Kennedy speaking in his New England accent. “Governor,” he said, according to Vandiver’s recollection of the conversation, “is there any way that you think you could get Martin Luther King out of jail? It would be of tremendous benefit to me.”

“Senator, I don’t know whether we can get him released or not,” Vandiver replied.

“Would you try and see what you can do and call me back?” Kennedy said.

Working in secrecy, Vandiver swung into action for the senator.

As news of King’s jailing spread, both presidential candidates received a petition from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and nearly twenty other civil rights organizations demanding that they “speak out against the imprisonment.”

In the Nixon camp, strategists calculated the political consequences and concluded the best course of action was silence. Nixon held fast to his decision even after a visit from his staunch supporter baseball hero and civil rights activist Jackie Robinson. As William Safire, then Nixon campaign aide and future New York Times columnist, told the story, Robinson came out of his ten-minute meeting with “tears of frustration in his eyes.” Complaining bitterly, he told Safire: “He thinks calling Martin would be ‘grandstanding.’” Robinson was so distraught he declared: “Nixon doesn’t deserve to win.” Yet, the baseball star continued to support the Republican and later said the outcome of the election had left him “terribly disappointed.”

In the Kennedy camp, the imprisoned preacher had two passionate proponents: White House aide Harris Wofford, a longtime friend of the Kings, and Sargent Shriver, the senator’s brother-in-law and head of the campaign’s Civil Rights Section. Because of their fervor for black rights, Wofford and Shriver were regarded as overly sentimental activists with impaired political judgment and were relegated to the periphery of the campaign. But the two men exerted a subtle yet powerful influence on the campaign: They forced a sense of conscience upon the political realists.

Wofford phoned Louis Martin, a successful black businessman and newspaper publisher who had deep political roots and was helping the campaign reach out to the black community. Martin was concerned about King, and after commiserating, the two men batted around some ideas. “What Kennedy ought to do is something direct and personal,” Wofford told Martin, “like picking up the telephone and calling Coretta.” It would be enough, Wofford observed, for the candidate to show his sympathy for her.

“That’s it, that’s it!” Louis agreed. “That would be perfect.”

Now came the hard part: getting this idea to Kennedy, who was campaigning in Chicago, and persuading him to act on it. After his private call to Governor Vandiver in the morning, the candidate had attended a breakfast with fifty businessmen. Now he was in a hotel suite at O’Hare Airport waiting to leave town.

After several tries Wofford finally tracked down Sargent Shriver, who was also in Chicago but not with the Kennedy entourage out at the airport. Understanding the urgency, Shriver listened to Wofford then said, “I’ll go right straight out to the airport. I’ll put it to Jack right now. It’s not too late.”

When Shriver got to the hotel suite he found Kennedy surrounded by aides, all rigidly opposed to the idea. Although the senator had already expressed his concerns privately to Governor Vandiver, he worried that a public telephone call to Coretta King could be perceived as a “gimmick” to reel in black votes. His key advisor, Ken O’Donnell, saw little political upside. “I felt my job was to always focus on the political factors and implications,” O’Donnell recalled. “The moral issues would be raised by Bobby [Kennedy], Sarge [Shriver], Harris Wofford, or others.” When John Kennedy pulled O’Donnell aside to confer privately, Ken told him: “While I am sympathetic to what Mrs. King and her family must be going through, from a political point of view, all I can see is that it could backfire.” How could Kennedy, a candidate who was criticized for his lukewarm support of black issues, justify this unusual bighearted action? “There are a million ways politically it could be a mess,” he warned Kennedy.

Shriver hovered, waiting to make his case alone. Finally the aides began to disperse: Wordsmith Ted Sorensen left to work on a speech, and press secretary Pierre Salinger went out to speak with reporters. But O’Donnell stuck around—besides advising Kennedy, he was the man who controlled access to the candidate and later to the president, and he now stood between Jack and his brother-in-law. Ready to pull rank as brother in law, Shriver approached O’Donnell. “I never use my family connection or ask for a favor, but you are wrong, Kenny,” he said. “This is too important. I want time alone with him.”

In O’Donnell’s view, the issue was decided and he didn’t want it reopened. But he also knew Shriver didn’t use his family position to advantage. “Unlike others,” O’Donnell said of Shriver, “he never asked or abused that [family] relationship, and, at some level, morally I suspected he might be right, though politically I still was against it.” Out of respect, or courtesy, or simply because he was hungry, O’Donnell stepped aside, allowing Shriver a private moment with Jack.

In parting, O’Donnell said softly he hadn’t eaten, he was going to get a hamburger, and the two men shook hands.

“You know I am right,” Shriver said as O’Donnell started off.

“Maybe,” O’Donnell replied. Then reminding him of how things often went in the rough and tumble of politics, he observed: “If it works, you’ll get no credit for it; if it does not, you’ll get all the blame.”

The two aides shared a laugh.

Shriver went into Kennedy’s room and found his brother-in-law alone, folding his clothes into his suitcase. As Shriver built his case, describing King’s terrifying drive through rural Georgia and Coretta’s anguish, Kennedy didn’t seem to be listening. His mind was elsewhere. “Jack,” Shriver pressed, “you just need to convey to Mrs. King that you believe what happened to her husband was wrong and that you will do what you can to see the situation rectified and that in general you stand behind him.”

Kennedy was not paying attention. To engage him, Shriver appealed to his conscience. “Negroes don’t expect everything will change tomorrow, no matter who’s elected,” he told Jack. “But they do want to know whether you care. If you telephone Mrs. King, they will know you understand and will help. You will reach their hearts and give support to a pregnant woman who is afraid her husband will be killed.”

Although cool and detached, Kennedy was in a quiet way sympathetic to the suffering of others and had a reflexive dislike of unfairness. All at once, Shriver noticed a change of heart in his brother-in-law. As he remembered it, Jack zipped up his suitcase then turned to him and said: “That’s a pretty good idea. How do I get to her?”

When Shriver handed over Coretta’s telephone number to him, Kennedy said: “Dial it for me, will you? I’ve got to pack up my papers.” As Jack filled his briefcase, Shriver sat down on the edge of the bed and put his finger into the rotary dial.

When the phone rang that morning, Coretta listened as Sargent Shriver introduced himself and told her he was with Jack Kennedy in Chicago. Senator Kennedy “wanted to speak with her for a moment,” Shriver informed her. “Would that be okay?”

After several seconds, she heard a voice familiar to her; she had just recently watched Kennedy give a smooth performance in the televised debates. “Good morning, Mrs. King,” the voice said. “This is Senator Kennedy.” After a brief exchange of pleasantries, Kennedy offered his sympathy: “I want to express to you my concern about your husband. I know this must be very hard for you.” He mentioned that he was aware she was expecting a baby. “I just wanted you to know that I was thinking about you and Dr. King,” he said cordially. “If there is anything I can do to help, please feel free to call on me.”

Coretta thanked him, saying: “I would appreciate anything you could do to help.”

And that was it: The call lasted no more than ninety seconds.

When Shriver informed Kenny O’Donnell, the campaign’s political master groused: “You just lost us the election.”

Inevitably, word of Kennedy’s gesture trickled out to the press, and pressure now mounted from several directions for King’s release.

Just as he protected his Vandiver conversation, Jack Kennedy was in no hurry to reveal that he had chatted with Coretta. He didn’t tell his press secretary Pierre Salinger until his campaign plane lifted off that after- noon from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on its way to Detroit. In the air, he nonchalantly mentioned it to Salinger who, recognizing a potential media firestorm, immediately relayed the news via the onboard radiophone to campaign manager Bobby Kennedy in Washington. Bobby was apoplectic when he learned that Shriver, Wofford, and Louis Martin had conspired and put Jack up to the call. Now the campaign had to prepare to control the damage.

For Sargent Shriver, it was impossible to forget Bobby’s irate phone call. “Bobby landed on me like a ton of bricks....He scorched my ass,” Shriver recalled. “Jack Kennedy was going to get defeated because of the stupid call,” Bobby fumed. He then turned his wrath on Wofford and Louis Martin, summoning the men to the campaign headquarters and berating them “with fists tight, his blue eyes cold,” as Wofford remembered it. Bobby had made the political calculations and didn’t like what it all added up to. “Do you know,” he fumed, “that three Southern governors told us that if Jack supported Jimmy Hoffa, Nikita Khrushchev, or Martin Luther King, they would throw their states to Nixon? Do you know that this election may be razor close and you have probably lost it for us?”

The next morning, Thursday, October 27, Judge Oscar Mitchell announced the release of the prisoner on a $2,000 bond, saying his action was mandatory under Georgia law. That afternoon, after about thirty hours of confinement at Reidsville, Martin Luther King Jr. walked out of his cell for his flight home to Atlanta. About two hours later he stepped off a chartered plane at Peachtree-DeKalb Airport into the arms of his relieved wife and other supporters.

Speaking to reporters at the airport, King said he was indebted to Kennedy for his role. “I understand from very reliable sources that Senator Kennedy served as a great force in making the release possible,” he said. “For him to be that courageous shows that he is really acting upon principle and not expediency.” Kennedy’s participation, he said, was “morally wise.” Leaving no doubt about his appreciation, King nonetheless stopped short of endorsing the candidate. “I hold Senator Kennedy in very high esteem,” he said. “I am convinced he will seek to exercise the power of his office to fully implement the civil rights plank of his party’s platform.”

King also took the opportunity to say that he had not heard from Vice President Richard Nixon and knew of no Republican efforts on his behalf. Years later, in an interview four months after President Kennedy’s assassination, King reiterated his disappointment. He explained that at the time of Reidsville he had a closer relationship with Nixon than he had with Kennedy; they’d known each other longer, and Nixon had frequently called on him for advice. “And yet, when this moment came, it was like he had never heard of me,” King said. “So this is why I really considered him a moral coward and one who was really unwilling to take a courageous step and take a risk.”

King’s release had an immediate and profound impact on the black community, unleashing a wave of support for Kennedy. In a single day, the senator beat back years of skepticism about his commitment to racial justice. Debates raged over whether his call to Coretta was a calculated political act or a true expression of compassion. Whatever the truth was, the act inspired a flood of raw emotion. The front page of the Chicago Defender featured a photo of King holding his young son and rubbing cheeks with him while his wife, Coretta, kissed him on his other cheek and his daughter stood at his elbow peering up at him. Above the photo was a large headline: REV. KING FREE ON BOND—HAIL SEN. KENNEDY’S ROLE IN CLERIC’S RELEASE. The New York Post sent a reporter into Harlem to gauge the reaction. “Many Harlemites were indignant at Nixon’s refusal even to comment on the case,” the reporter wrote. The Post published the comments of John Patterson, publisher of the Harlem paper Citizen-Call. “Mr. Nixon, in his refusal to comment or take a stand on the civil rights issue that Rev. King’s arrest symbolized, merely extends the say-nothing, do-nothing rule by golf-club philosophy of President Eisenhower regarding this moral issue.” By contrast, Senator Kennedy was praised in newspapers across the country. A widely distributed Associated Press dispatch reported a version of the comforting words Kennedy said to Coretta on the phone: “This must be pretty hard on you, and I want to let you both know that I’m thinking about you, and will do all I can to help.”

Kennedy suffered only minor fallout among Southern white voters. On the Sunday following King’s release, Claude Sitton of the New York Times reported that Kennedy appeared “to be gaining strength in Southern states once considered safe for Vice President Nixon.” In the concluding paragraphs, Sitton acknowledged that Kennedy’s role in King’s release from prison “may hurt the Democratic cause somewhat among white Southern voters” but that the repercussions “had been milder than expected.” If there was a strong reaction, it was among Southern blacks who were now more favorably disposed toward Kennedy. Despite voting restrictions that prevented Southern blacks from casting ballots in numbers that their population justified, their impact could be substantial. As Sitton reported, blacks “cast the decisive vote in close elections in some Southern states.”

On Election Day, if blacks hadn’t turned out for him in large numbers, Kennedy might have had to deliver a concession speech. In Illinois, for instance, where he topped Nixon by 9,000 votes, 250,000 blacks voted for Kennedy. In Michigan, he won the votes of another 250,000 blacks and carried the state by 67,000 votes. In South Carolina, he carried the state by 10,000 votes with 40,000 blacks casting ballots for him.

In his book The Making of the President 1960, campaign historian Theodore White assessed the impact of the call to Coretta. “One cannot identify in the narrowness of American voting of 1960 any one particular episode or decision as being more important than any other in the final tallies,” he wrote. But, he added, the “instinctive decision must be ranked among the most crucial of the last few weeks.” White observed that blacks were convinced that they had anointed Kennedy. “Some Negro political leaders claim,” White wrote, “that in no less than eleven states (Illinois, New Jersey, Michigan, South Carolina, Texas, Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Nevada), with 169 electoral votes, it was the Negro community that provided the Kennedy margin of victory.”

Nationwide, Kennedy got only 118,574 more votes than Nixon did out of a total 68,370,000 ballots cast. Kennedy tallied 49.7 percent of the popular vote to Nixon’s 49.6 percent. In the crucial electoral votes, Kennedy amassed 303 to Nixon’s 219, enough to catapult him into the White House. Altogether, blacks turned out for Kennedy in staggering numbers. A Gallup poll put the figure at 70 percent, and an IBM poll came up with 68 percent. (In 1956, Adlai Stevenson got 60 percent.) From the black perspective, those numbers left no doubt of the community’s role in sending Kennedy to the White House.

Nixon was embittered by his narrow loss and the surprising black turnout for Kennedy. Later explaining his “no comment” at the height of the King uproar, he admitted “this was a fatal communication gap. I had meant Herb [Klein, his press secretary] to say that I had no comment at this time.” This explanation doesn’t quite conform to reality. Nixon in fact had heard a drumbeat of voices within his campaign begging him to speak out immediately, but he remained silent.

John Kennedy never explained his reason for placing the call to Coretta King. Was the candidate driven by politics or by goodwill? Cynics see only a man of callous manipulation, and torchbearers for Kennedy see only his grace and humanity. As Martin Luther King Jr. himself recognized, both impulses inspired Kennedy’s call, and they did not necessarily contradict each other. And that ninety-second conversation laid massive expectations on the Kennedy presidency. Before he even settled into the White House, Jack Kennedy was put on notice that blacks from Harlem to Montgomery expected him to listen to their leader Martin Luther King Jr. and hear their cries for equality.


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