Politician and philanthropist Nelson A. Rockefeller was an outspoken supporter of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King once said of the four-term governor of New York: “If we had one or two governors in the Deep South like Nelson Rockefeller, many of our problems could be readily solved” (Walker, 19 October 1962).
Rockefeller was born 8 July 1908, in Bar Harbor, Maine, into one of the wealthiest families in the country. Concern for the lives of African Americans went back at least three generations to his grandfather, Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller, who, with his wife, Laura Spelman Rockefeller, had endowed Spelman College and King’s alma mater, Morehouse College. Rockefeller graduated from Dartmouth in 1930, and joined the State Department the following year to oversee relations with Latin America. He left five years later to found his own nonprofit organization promoting development in the region. Rockefeller moved in and out of government for the next decade, taking roles in both the Harry S. Truman and the Dwight D. Eisenhower administrations, and then ran for governor of the state of New York in 1958.
Rockefeller’s support for King began during that election year when the two appeared together, along with baseball star Jackie Robinson and president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, A. Phillip Randolph, at a rally sponsored by the Youth March for Integrated Schools. After Rockefeller was elected, he used his position to advocate civil rights in the South. When King was arrested at a sit-in demonstration in Atlanta in October 1960, Rockefeller used the pulpit of a Brooklyn, New York, church to applaud King’s ideals: “We’ve got to make love a reality in our own country. When the great spiritual leader, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, finds himself in jail today because he had the courage to love, we have a long way to go in America” (Dales, “Governor Turns to Lay Preaching”).
In early 1962, Rockefeller offered to help King set up a New York office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and after King was arrested while supporting the Albany Movement, he expressed appreciation for Rockefeller’s supportive response at a dinner he co-chaired honoring Robinson’s Hall of Fame induction. “Governor Rockefeller probed clearly to the point of our crusade and asked the Federal Government … whether or not the city of Albany, Georgia infringes upon the constitutional rights of Negro citizens with impunity” (King, 20 July 1962).
Rockefeller’s financial largesse helped rebuild several bombed churches in the South, and he matched the $25,000 donation King made of his Nobel Peace Prize award to the Gandhi Society for Human Rights. During the Birmingham Campaign, Rockefeller secretly gave Clarence Jones money from his family’s Chase Manhattan bank to bail local protesters out of jail. King wrote in his New York Amsterdam News column that Rockefeller had “a real grasp and understanding of what the Negro revolution is all about, and a commitment to its goals” (King, “The Presidential Nomination”).
Although Rockefeller could not join King during his 1965 Selma to Montgomery March, Rockefeller wrote that he had “the most profound sympathy and respect for the purpose of this historic mission” (Rockefeller, 18 March 1965). That fall, the governor traveled to Atlanta to join King as the featured speaker at Ebenezer Baptist Church’s annual Men’s Day celebration.
The following year Rockefeller won his third term as governor of New York. He later appointed Wyatt Tee Walker, SCLC’s executive director from 1960 to 1964, as his special assistant for urban affairs.
After King’s assassination, Rockefeller asked the New York legislature to pass “a series of measures vitally affecting the lives of all our Negro citizens: jobs and health, housing, education, and training” (Witkin, “Rockefeller Asks ‘Memorial’ Laws”). He flew to Atlanta in a chartered jet to attend King’s funeral.
Rockefeller announced his third and final bid for the Republican presidential nomination on 30 April 1968, later losing to Richard Nixon. Although he was reelected governor of New York in 1970, he resigned in 1973 to devote himself to his charitable work. After Nixon resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal, President Gerald Ford asked Rockefeller to serve as Vice President of the United States. Rockefeller served the two-year term and then retired from public life. He died of a heart attack on 26 January 1979.
Douglas Dales, “Governor Turns to Lay Preaching,” New York Times, 24 October 1960.
King, Address for Hall of Fame Dinner in Honor of Jackie Robinson, 20 July 1962, MLKJP-GAMK.
King, “The Presidential Nomination,” New York Amsterdam News, 25 April 1964.
Rockefeller to King, 18 March 1965, MCMLK-RWWL.
Wyatt Tee Walker to Hugh Morrow, 19 October 1962, MLKJP-GAMK.
Richard Witkin, “Rockefeller Asks ‘Memorial’ Laws,” New York Times, 6 April 1968.