When conservative Arizona Senator Barry M. Goldwater ran for president in 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr., expressed his opposition, explaining: “I feel that the prospect of Senator Goldwater being president of the United States so threatens the health, morality, and survival of our nation that I can not in good conscience fail to take a stand against what he represents” (King, 16 July 1964). Goldwater lost the election to President Lyndon Johnson in a landslide, winning majorities only in his native Arizona and five states of the Deep South.
Born in Phoenix in 1909, when Arizona was still a territory, Goldwater’s family was part of the city’s elite. After completing high school at a military academy in Virginia, he enrolled in the University of Arizona at Tucson in 1928. When his father died the following year, Goldwater dropped out of college to manage his family’s department store. He joined the Air Force during World War II, flying missions from India and China. When he returned to Phoenix after the war, he was elected to the city council.
In 1952, Goldwater was elected to the Senate on a pledge to reduce federal spending and fight communism. Reelected in 1958, Goldwater opposed social welfare programs and continued to criticize the Supreme Court on its school integration stance. He voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. King said of Goldwater’s voting record, “While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulates a philosophy which gives aid and comfort to the racists” (King, 16 July 1964). King feared that Goldwater’s position that “civil rights must be left, by and large to the states” meant “leaving it to the Wallaces and the Barnetts” (King, “The Republican Presidential Nomination”). Electing Goldwater, King said, would plunge the country into a “dark night of social disruption” (King, 21 September 1964).
In the month before the election, King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference launched a nationwide “get out the vote” drive. Although King called the campaign “bipartisan,” he wrote: “The principles of states’ rights advocated by Mr. Goldwater diminish us and would deny to Negro and white alike, many of the privileges and opportunities of living in American society” (King, 9 October 1964). When Johnson defeated Goldwater, King declared, “The American people made a choice … to build a great society, rather than to wallow in the past” (King, “A Choice and a Promise”).
Despite his defeat in the presidential election, Arizona reelected Goldwater to the Senate in 1968, 1974, and 1980. He supported the Vietnam War and stood by President Richard Nixon during the Watergate controversy until tapes irrefutably demonstrated Nixon’s involvement. Despite his conservatism, Goldwater was critical of the religious right, supported gay rights, and defended abortion. After retirement in 1987, he continued to speak publicly on social issues until his death in 1998.
Goldwater with Casserly, Goldwater, 1988.
King, “A Choice and a Promise,” New York Amsterdam News, 5 December 1964.
King, Interview by Ronald Allison, 21 September 1964, MLKJP-GAMK.
King, “The Presidential Nomination,” New York Amsterdam News, 25 April 1964.
King, Form letter to Friend, 9 October 1964, CRC-NN-Sc.
King, “The Republican Presidential Nomination,” 1 April 1964, MLKJP-GAMK.
King, Statement on Republican nomination of Senator Barry Goldwater, 16 July 1964, MLKJP-GAMK.