The 1960 presidential campaign between Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican candidate Richard Nixon proved to be one of the closest elections in U.S. history, and one in which Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement played a pivotal role.
Born 29 May 1917 to a wealthy and politically prominent Boston family, Kennedy graduated from Harvard University in 1940. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he followed his father into politics and served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and eight years in the Senate before securing the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in 1960.
During the 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy interceded when King was convicted for a probation violation after participating in a sit-in in Atlanta. Following the recommendations of campaign advisors, Kennedy called Coretta Scott King to offer his sympathy and his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, made phone calls that helped hasten King’s release on bail from Georgia State Prison at Reidsville. In a statement following his release, King told reporters he owed “a great debt of gratitude to Senator Kennedy and his family,” and downplayed the candidate’s political motivations: “I’m sure that the senator did it because of his real concern and his humanitarian bent” (Papers 5:39). Though pressed by reporters, King declined to endorse Kennedy, explaining that it would be inappropriate for him to do so as the leader of the nonpartisan Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). On election day, Kennedy defeated Nixon by less than one percent of the popular vote, a margin of victory that highlighted the importance of African American support.
Initially Kennedy proceeded cautiously with respect to civil rights. Despite pleas from King and other civil rights leaders for federal intervention during the violence surrounding the Freedom Rides and the Albany Movement, the Kennedy administration produced little policy progress on civil rights for racial minorities. In 1962, Kennedy slowly began to move forward a civil rights agenda with his administration’s participation in the creation of the Voter Education Project. Later that year, he sent federal troops to Oxford, Mississippi, to quell riots at the University of Mississippi following its integration by James Meredith.
The 1963 Birmingham Campaign, headed by SCLC and local leaders, proved to be a catalyst for increased federal involvement in the struggle. The national media showed images of peaceful demonstrators being attacked by police dogs and high-powered water hoses sweeping people down the street, and Kennedy had little choice but to increase efforts to restore peace. On 11 June 1963, he directly addressed national concerns over civil rights: “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated” (Kennedy, “President Kennedy’s Radio,” 970). Kennedy followed his speech by introducing to Congress a comprehensive civil rights bill that primarily focused on the desegregation of schools, restaurants, hotels, and similar public facilities.
As Kennedy’s proposed legislation was filibustered in Congress, King and other civil rights leaders pressured the president for action and proceeded with plans for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, scheduled for late August. In a meeting with King, Kennedy initially expressed concern about the march and its effect on the pending civil rights bill. King assured Kennedy of the event’s peaceful intentions and the president did not request the demonstration’s cancellation.
Two weeks after the March on Washington, a dynamite blast at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killed four girls. King was devastated by the killings, writing to Kennedy: “In a few hours I will be going to Birmingham. I will sincerely plead with my people to remain non violent.… I am convinced that unless some steps are taken by the federal government to restore a sense of confidence in the protection of life, limb and property my pleas shall fall on deaf ears and we shall see the worst racial holocaust this nation has ever seen” (King, 15 September 1963). A few days later Kennedy met with King and other leaders regarding federal intervention in the civil rights struggle.
Kennedy’s civil rights legislation remained stalled in Congress when he was assassinated on 22 November 1963. King wrote an epitaph to the slain president in a column appearing in the New York Amsterdam News, a month after Kennedy’s death. Proclaiming that we can all learn something from Kennedy in death, King wrote that the former president’s death “says to all of us that this virus of hate that has seeped into the [veins] of our nation, if unchecked, will lead inevitably to our moral and spiritual doom.” Concluding his eulogy, King described Kennedy’s life as a challenge to “move forward with more determination to rid our nation of the vestiges of racial segregation and discrimination” (“What Killed JFK?”). It would take another eight months of battles with southern politicians before the Civil Rights Act was signed on 2 July 1964.
Introduction, in Papers 5:38–40.
Kennedy, “President Kennedy’s Radio-TV Address on Civil Rights,” Congressional Quarterly (14 June 1963): 970–971.
King, Interview after Release from Georgia State Prison at Reidsville, 27 October 1960, in Papers 5:535–536.
King, Statement on Presidential Endorsement, 1 November 1960, in Papers 5:537, 540.
King, “What Killed JFK?” New York Amsterdam News, 21 December 1963.
King to Kennedy, 15 September 1963, JFKWHCSF-MBJFK.