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Chapter 15: Atlanta Arrest and Presidential Politics

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Book cover - The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson

I fear that there is a dearth of vision in our government, a lack of a sense of history and genuine morality.

  • June 23, 1960 King discusses civil rights with presidential candidate Senator John F. Kennedy
  • October 19 Is arrested at Atlanta sit-in
  • October 25 Charges are dropped for sit-in arrest but King is held for violating probation for earlier traffic offense and transferred to Reidsville State Prison
  • October 26 Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy calls Coretta Scott King to express sympathy and offer assistance; Robert Kennedy calls Georgia governor S. Ernest Vandiver and Judge Oscar Mitchell seeking King's release an bail
  • October 23 King's attorney Donald L. Hollowell arranges release from prison
  • November 1 King applauds Senator Kennedy for support
  • November 8 Kennedy wins close election, receiving strong support from black voters

    My first contact with John Kennedy was when he was a senator seeking the nomination for President. For several months, we had tried to work out a meeting and every time I could go he was away. Finally we worked out an engagement at his apartment in New York. That was June of 1960, about a month before the convention. 

    We talked for about an hour over the breakfast table. I was very frank about what I thought: that there was a need for a strong executive leadership and that we hadn't gotten this during the Eisenhower administration. If we didn't get it in the new administration, we would be set back even more. I was very impressed by the forthright and honest manner in which he discussed the civil rights question, and with his concern and his willingness to learn more about civil rights. 

    I specifically mentioned a need for an executive order outlawing discrimination in federally assisted housing. I also mentioned to him the need for strong civil rights legislation, and I stressed voting issues because we were deeply involved at that time in voter registration drives and had encountered a number of difficulties in states like Alabama and Mississippi. 

    As I recall, he agreed with all of these things. He agreed that there was a need for strong executive leadership and that this had not existed, and he felt if he received the nomination and was elected he could give this kind of leadership. He assured me also that he felt the whole question of the right to vote was a key and basic, and that this would be one of the immediate things that he would look into. He said that he had voted consistently for civil rights. I raised the question with him about 1957, when he voted against what we considered as a very important section of the civil rights bill. He said that since that time, if he had to face the issue again, he would reverse his position because many of the developments during the sitin movement had pointed up the injustices and indignities that Negroes were facing all over the South, and for this reason he had reevaluated many of these things. 

    John Kennedy did not have the grasp and the comprehension of the depths of the problem at that time, as he later did. He knew that segregation was morally wrong and he certainly intellectually committed himself to integration, but I could see that he didn't have the emotional involvement then. He had not really been involved enough in and with the problem. He didn't know too many Negroes personally. He had never really had the personal experience of knowing the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the Negro for freedom, because he just didn't know Negroes generally and he hadn't had any experience in the civil rights struggle. So I felt that it was an intellectual commitment. 

    A few months later, after he had been nominated, I talked with him over at his house in Georgetown, and in that short period he had really learned a great deal about civil rights and had been advised rather well. I'd had little enthusiasm when he first announced his candidacy, but I had no doubt that he would do the right thing on the civil rights issue, if he were elected President.

    He was very much concerned then about the election and possibly losing. Some of his friends were concerned about this and felt he had to do something dramatic to convince the nation of his commitment to civil rights. Some of the advisors thought that he should come South and make a civil rights speech right here in the South which would really convince people. They wanted him to come under my auspices to speak for a board meeting or a dinner sponsored by SCLC. I told him I just couldn't do that unless Mr. Nixon came, because we were a nonpartisan organization. I said, "Now Nixon may not come but I would have to invite him." But they felt, naturally, that it wouldn't work that way. So I kind of backed out on that idea because I thought it would be a mistake. 

    For many months during the election campaign, my close friends urged me to declare my support for John Kennedy. I spent many troubled hours searching for the responsible and fair decision. I was impressed by his qualities, by many elements in his record, and by his program. I had learned to enjoy and respect his charm and his incisive mind. But I made very clear to him that I did not endorse candidates publicly and that I could not come to the point that I would change my views on this.

    I didn't know where they were taking me

    Nevertheless, I was grateful to Senator Kennedy for the genuine concern he expressed about my arrest in October 1960 because of my participation in nonviolent efforts to integrate lunch counters in Atlanta, Georgia. I took part in the lunch counter sit-ins at Rich's department store as a follower, not a leader. I did not initiate the thing. It came into being with the students discussing the issues involved. They called me and asked me to join in. They wanted me to he in it. and I felt a moral obligation to be in it with them.

    I was arrested along with some two hundred eighty students in a sit-in demonstration seeking to integrate lunch counters. I said when I went in Fulton County Jail that I could not in all good conscience post bail and that I would stay and serve the time if it was one year, five, or ten years. Of course the students agreed to stay also. 

    If, by chance, Your Honor, we are guilty of violating the law, please be assured that we did it to bring the whole issue of racial injustice under the scrutiny of the conscience of Atlanta. I must honestly say that we firmly believe that segregation is evil, and that our Southland will never reach its full potential and moral maturity until this cancerous disease is removed. We do not seek to remove this unjust system for ourselves alone but for our white brothers as well. The festering sore of segregation debilitates the white man as well as the Negro. So, if our actions in any way served to bring this issue to the forefront of the conscience of the community, they were not undertaken in vain.

    And, sir, I know you have a legal obligation facing you at this hour. This judicial obligation may cause you to hand us over to another court rather than dismiss the charges. But, sir, I must say that I have a moral obligation facing me at this hour. This imperative drives me to say that if you find it necessary to set a bond, 1 cannot in all good conscience have anyone go buy my bail. 1 will choose jail rather than bail, even if it means remaining in jail a year or even ten years. Maybe it will take this type of self-suffering on the part of numerous Negroes to finally expose the moral defense of our white brothers who happen to he misguided and thusly awaken the dozing conscience of our community.

    When they came to see after five or six days that we were not coming out and that the community was getting very much concerned, the merchants dropped the charges, which meant that everybody was released without bail immediately. But when I was released, they served me with papers stating that I had violated my probation and that I would be transferred to DeKalb jail and go on trial in the court there. 

    On the night of May 4, 1960, police stopped me in DeKalb County and discovered I still had an Alabama driver's license. Because of this, they gave me a ticket. I had gone to court, and I didn't even know it at the time but the lawyer pleaded guilty for me and they had fined me something like $25 or $50 and placed me on probation for I guess six months. I didn't even pay attention to the case, it was such a minor case; I didn't pay attention to it and never knew that the lawyer had really pleaded guilty. He had just told me, "I've got everything worked out." He made me think it was clear and all I needed to do was pay. Actually they later admitted in court that they had never fined or arrested anybody on a charge like that, and they really had nothing on the statute to reveal how long you had to be in Atlanta before changing your license. So it was obviously a case of persecution.

Letter to Coretta

Reidsville, Georgia

Hello Darling,

Today I find myself a long way from you and the children. I am at the State Prison in Reidsville which is about 230 miles from Atlanta. They picked me up from the DeKalb jail about 4 o'clock this morning. I know this whole experience is very difficult for you to adjust to, especially in your condition of pregnancy, but as I said to you yesterday this is the cross that we must bear for the freedom of our people. So I urge you to be strong in faith, and this will in turn strengthen me. I can assure you that it is extremely difficult for me to think of being away from you and my Yoki and Marty for four months, but I am asking God hourly to give me the power of endurance. I have the faith to believe that this excessive suffering that is now coming to our family will in some little way serve to make Atlanta a better city, Georgia a better state, and America a better country. Just how I do not yet know, but I have faith to believe it will. If I am correct then our suffering is not in vain. 

I understand that I can have visitors twice a month-the second and fourth Sunday. However, I understand that everybody-white and colored-can have visitors this coming Sunday. I hope you can find some way to come down. I know it will be a terrible inconvenience in your condition, but I want to see you and the children very badly. 

Eternally Yours,

October 26, 1960

I sat in the back of the courtroom while Mr. Charles M. Clayton, a Negro attorney who represented me, talked with the judge. We had this big trial and I had my lawyers arguing the case brilliantly and after all of that the judge said six months of hard labor, and this was not appealable. 

So they took me back upstairs and put me in jail in the DeKalb County Jail. Then early in the morning, about three o'clock in the morning, they came and got me and took me to Reidsville. That was the state prison some two hundred and twenty miles from Atlanta. On the way, they dealt with me just like I was some hardened criminal. They had me chained all the way down to my legs, and they tied my legs to something in the floor so there would be no way for me to escape. 

They talked with themselves. It was a long ride. I didn't know where they were taking me; but finally I assumed it must be to one of the state prisons after we had been gone so long. That kind of mental anguish is worse than dying, riding for mile after mile, hungry and thirsty, bound and helpless, waiting and not knowing what you're waiting for. And all over a traffic violation.

Kennedy exhibited moral courage

When people found out that they had taken me out in the wee hours of the morning and transferred me, there was real resentment all over. I think people had already started talking to both Nixon and Kennedy about doing something even when we were still in the Fulton County Jail-saying to them that they should make a statement about it. After they transferred me to Reidsville-in a segregated cell-block, a place where inmates who had attacked guards, psychotics, and other special cases were housed-Harris Wofford and others strongly urged Mr. Kennedy to try to use his influence to do something about it, and he finally agreed. 

The first thing he did was call my wife. She was pregnant, and this was kind of a rough experience for her, so he called her and expressed his concern. He said that he would do whatever he could and that he would think this over with his brother and try to use his influence to get me released. 

In the meantime, Robert Kennedy called the judge to find out about the bond. I understand Robert Kennedy was really angry about it, when they got it over to him and let him know all of the facts in the situation. In that spirit of anger, he called the judge. I don't know what he said in that conversation with the judge, but it was later revealed his main point was "Why can't he be bonded out?" I was released the next day. It was about two weeks before the election. 

Senator Kennedy had served as a great force in making my release from Reidsville Prison possible. I was personally obligated to him and his brother for their intervention during my imprisonment. He did it because of his great concern and his humanitarian bent. I would like to feel that he made the call because he was concerned. He had come to know me as a person then. He had been in the debates and had done a good job when he talked about civil rights and what the Negro faces. Harris and others had really been talking with him about it. At the same time, I think he naturally had political considerations in mind. He was running for an office, and he needed to be elected, and I'm sure he felt the need for the Negro votes. So I think that he did something that expressed deep moral concern, but at the same time it was politically sound. It did take a little courage to do this; he didn't know it was politically sound. 

I always felt that Nixon lost a real opportunity to express support of something much larger than an individual, because this expressed support for the movement for civil rights. It indicated the direction that this man would take, if he became president.

And I had known Nixon longer. He had been supposedly close to me, and he would call me frequently about things, seeking my advice. And yet, when this moment came, it was like he had never heard of me. 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. And I am convinced that he lost the election because of that. Many Negroes were still on the fence, still undecided, and they were leaning toward Nixon.

On Richard Nixon 

First, I must admit that I was strongly opposed to Vice President Nixon before meeting him personally. I went to him with an initial bias. I remembered his statements against Helen Gahegen Douglas and also the fact that he voted with the right wing of the Republican Party. These were almost unforgivable sins for me at that time. After meeting the vice president, however, I must admit that my impression somewhat changed. I have frankly come to feel that the position and the world contacts of the vice president have matured his person and judgment. Whether he can have experienced a complete conversion, I cannot say. But I do believe that he has grown a great deal and has changed many of his former opinions. 

Since I am quite interested in civil rights, I might say just a word concerning his views at this point. I am coming to believe that Nixon is absolutely sincere about his views on this issue. His travels have revealed to him how the race problem is hurting America in international relations and it is altogether possible that he has no basic racial prejudice. Nixon happens to be a Quaker and there are very few Quakers who are prejudiced from a racial point of view. I also feel that Nixon would have done much more to meet the present crisis in race relations than President Eisenhower has done .... 

Finally, I would say that Nixon has a genius for convincing one that he is sincere. When you are close to Nixon he almost disarms you with his apparent sincerity. You never get the impression that he is the same man who campaigned in California a few years ago, and who made a tear-jerking speech on television in the 1952 campaign to save himself from an obvious misdeed. And so I would conclude by saying that if Richard Nixon is not sincere, he is the most dangerous man in America.

Letter to Earl Mazo, September 2, 1958

My father had endorsed Nixon until that call. He knew about my relations with Nixon, and I think he felt that Nixon would do a good job on the civil rights question. I guess deep down within there may have been a little of the religious feeling that a Catholic should not be president. I'm sure my father had been somewhat influenced by this, so that he had gone on record endorsing Nixon. After that call, he changed, and he made a very strong statement. 

I was grateful to Senator Kennedy for the genuine concern he expressed in my arrest. After the call I made a statement to the press thanking him but not endorsing him. Very frankly, I did not feel at that time that there was much difference between Kennedy and Nixon. I could find some things in the background of both men that I didn't particularly agree with. Remembering what Nixon had done out in California to Helen Gahegen Douglas, I felt that he was an opportunist at many times who had no real grounding in basic convictions, and his voting record was not good. He improved when he became vice president, but, when he was a congressman and a senator, he didn't have a good voting record. 

With Mr. Kennedy, after I looked over his voting record, I felt at points that he was so concerned about being president of the United States that he would compromise basic principles to become president. But I had to look at something else beyond the man-the people who surrounded him-and I felt that Kennedy was surrounded by better people. It was on that basis that I felt that Kennedy would make the best president. 

I never came out with an endorsement. My father did, but I never made one. I took this position in order to maintain a nonpartisan posture, which I have followed all along in order to be able to look objectively at both parties at all times. As I said to him all along, I couldn't, and I never changed that even after he made the call during my arrest. I made a statement of thanks, and I expressed my gratitude for the call, but in the statement I made it clear that I did not endorse any candidate and that this was not to be interpreted as an endorsement. 

I had to conclude that the then known facts about Kennedy were not adequate to make an unqualified judgment in his favor. I do feel that, as any man, he grew a great deal. After he became president I thought we really saw two Kennedys-a Kennedy the first two years and another Kennedy emerging in 1963. He was getting ready to throw off political considerations and see the real moral issues. Had President Kennedy lived, I would probably have endorsed him in 1964. But, back at that time, I concluded that there was something to be desired in both candidates.

NEXT: Chapter 16: The Albany Movement