Bob Fitch photography archive, © Stanford University Libraries
Richard M. Nixon had a complicated relationship with Martin Luther King, Jr., and the African American freedom struggle. Although King later questioned Nixon’s sincerity, while Nixon served as vice president in the 1950s, King commented that with “persons like you occupying such important positions in our nation I am sure that we will soon emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man” (Papers 4:264).
Born 9 January 1913 in Yorba Linda, California, Nixon was the second son of Frank and Hannah Nixon. He was raised in the small town of Whittier, California, where his father owned a gas station and general store. Nixon graduated second in his class from Whittier College in 1934 and received a scholarship to attend Duke University’s law school, graduating third in his class in 1937. Nixon returned to Whittier to practice law for several years before moving to Washington, D.C., to work for the tire rationing section of the Office of Price Administration during World War II. In August of 1942 Nixon was commissioned to the Navy and rose to the rank of lieutenant commander while serving in the South Pacific.
Nixon’s political career began in 1946, when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for California’s 12th congressional district. He gained national attention as a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee and for his role in the prosecution of Alger Hiss, a former employee of the Department of State and an alleged Communist agent. In 1950 Nixon was elected to the U.S. Senate and was later selected as the Republican vice-presidential running mate for Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The tone of the relationship between King and Nixon varied over the years. Early on, King had developed an “initial bias” against Nixon because of his tendency to vote with the more conservative right wing of the Republican Party (Papers 4:482). This shifted, however, when the two met in March 1957 at ceremonies in Ghana celebrating that nation’s independence. Nixon later invited King to Washington, D.C., for a meeting on 13 June 1957. This meeting, described by Bayard Rustin as a “summit conference,” marked national recognition of King’s role in the civil rights movement (Rustin, 13 June 1957). Seeking support for a voter registration initiative in the South, King appealed to Nixon to urge Republicans in Congress to pass a pending civil rights bill and to visit the South to express support for civil rights. Optimistic about Nixon’s commitment to improving race relations in the United States, King told Nixon, “How deeply grateful all people of goodwill are to you for your assiduous labor and dauntless courage in seeking to make the civil rights bill a reality” (Papers 4:264). King was also skeptical, telling a Nixon biographer, “If Richard Nixon is not sincere, he is the most dangerous man in America” (Papers 4:483).
Many black leaders, including Martin Luther King, Sr., and Jackie Robinson, initially supported Nixon’s 1960 bid for the presidency. Blacks believed Nixon to be more committed to civil rights reform than President Eisenhower had been, but the attitudes of black voters shifted during the final days of the 1960 presidential campaign. In October 1960 King was sentenced to four months in jail for violating his probation after participating in an Atlanta sit-in. After encouragement from Harris Wofford and other advisors, Nixon’s opponent, John F. Kennedy, phoned Coretta Scott King to convey his sympathy. King expressed disappointment that, despite his previously warm relationship with Nixon, “When this moment came, it was like he had never heard of me.” King believed Nixon’s inaction made him appear as “a moral coward and one who was really unwilling to take a courageous step and take a risk” (King, 9 March 1964). Kennedy’s phone call and his campaign’s discreet publicity promoting his role in releasing King from jail gained him the support of many black voters, and he defeated Nixon by less than one percent of the popular vote.
Nixon ran an unsuccessful campaign for California governor in 1962, and later narrowly won the 1968 presidential election against Democrat Hubert Humphrey and third-party candidate George Wallace. He was reelected in a landslide victory over Democratic opponent Senator George McGovern in 1972. During his terms in office Nixon reversed some of the social and economic welfare policies of predecessor Lyndon B. Johnson, vetoing new health, education, and welfare legislation. Seeking southern support for the Republican Party, Nixon supported anti-busing legislation and favored “law and order” policies that were widely seen as directed against black militancy.
In 1974, after his involvement in the Watergate scandal, Nixon became the only U.S. president to ever resign. He continued to comment on foreign affairs and wrote several books before his death in New York City on 22 April 1994.
Ambrose, Nixon, 1987.
Introduction, in Papers 5:36–40.
King, Interview by Berl Bernhard, 9 March 1964, JFKOH-MBJFK.
King, Statement on Meeting with Richard M. Nixon, 13 June 1957, in Papers 4:222–223.
King to Mazo, 2 September 1958, in Papers 4:481–483.
King to Nixon, 30 August 1957, in Papers 4:262–264.
Rustin and Stanley Levison to King, 13 June 1957, MLKP-MBU.