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In 1960 the US was due a presidential election. At this same time, the US was at a crucial point in its civil rights movements, primarily led by Martin Luther King Jr. A new president could make or break the campaign and so the candidates’ views on and actions for civil rights, or lack thereof, were of extreme importance to the civil rights activists. They needed a president who was going to fight for their cause and not support the segregationist southern white population. This means that in order for the chosen candidates from the Democratic and Republican parties to win over the black voters, they needed to show their support for civil rights. When Senator John F. Kennedy and Senator Richard Nixon were announced as the candidates running for president, the civil rights activists were worried as neither of them had proven their dedication to the cause. Kennedy, in particular, seemed to be sailing through the primaries receiving win after win, however, a majority of black voters were not turning out for him. The election was predicted to be very close, and Kennedy was sure to lose if he could not win over the black voters.

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There was, however, a reason for black voters to be cautious of Kennedy. Early on in his political career, Kennedy fought for civil rights a number of times and would have been their ideal candidate had he kept this up. However, once he started to think of running as a presidential candidate, he cut back on his public movements for civil rights drastically. In 1959 he knew for definite that he would be running a presidential campaign and needed to incorporate himself with a critical constituency, the segregationists in the South, who were predominantly white. He invited John Patterson, the governor of Alabama, to meet with him in his home in Georgetown. The governor was well-known for having racist views, so when he emerged from the private meeting with Senator Kennedy and endorsed his presidential campaign, even calling him “a friend of the South”, many black people feared Kennedy had made promises to the governor of support towards the southern ideals. His lack of devotion toward civil rights angered New York Post writer Jackie Robinson, who already had a bias for Nixon as they had stayed good friends since meeting in 1952. Shortly after Kennedy announced he was running for president, Robinson said: “Would you have me support a Kennedy who met with one of the worst segregationists in private, and then this man, the Governor of Alabama, comes out with strong support of Senator Kennedy?” Robinson’s hostile attitude toward Kennedy proved to the campaign that the majority of the black population were not convinced by Kennedy’s efforts for the civil rights movement.

Just how important was the black vote? It was seen as the tipping point in what was predicted to be an extremely close election. Each individual vote could be the deciding one, and Kennedy needed to make certain that it was in his favour. According to one calculation, black voters could provide a victory in six key states; New York, Pennsylvania, California, Ohio, Illinois and Michigan. These states together accounted for 181 electoral votes out of the 267 votes needed to win the election. However, out of the 9.5million black Americans eligible to vote in the 1956 presidential election, a mere 3.5million actually voted. This was only 37%, in comparison to a 58% turnout of white voters. In order to gain popularity with the black population, it was crucial for the campaign to win the support of Martin Luther King Jr. Kennedy’s campaign organised for the two to meet for the second time, the first being at the Democratic National Convention that July, to gain King’s endorsement. Unfortunately for Kennedy’s campaign, King felt he was unable to support either candidate publicly as he purposely stayed clear of political issues that did not concern himself or civil rights. King did, however, advise Kennedy that in order to gain the votes from the key constituency, “something dramatic must be done to convince the Negroes that you are committed on civil rights”. Little to Kennedy’s knowledge, he would be faced with an opportunity to do “something dramatic” very soon.

On October 19th, 1960, Martin Luther King Jr. joined a group for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) for a sit-in in Rich’s Department Store in Atlanta, Georgia, in an attempt to desegregate to store’s restaurants and snack bars. King had been reluctant to take part in the sit-in as the proposition presented to him by the SNCC included going to jail with them, which would be in violation of his parole from a charge he faced the month previous for a traffic violation that was settled with a $25 fine and 12 months probation. However, King was pressured into joining the movement due to the lack of initiative he had been taking since the Montgomery Bus Boycott four years previous. People had started to question his leadership due to the reduction in protests he attended and direct action on behalf of black rights, and so he took part in the sit-in to renew his followers’ belief in him. The group of 35 were promptly taken into police custody shortly after the start of the protest and refused bail as it was their “moral obligation”, with King also stating “I will stay in jail for a year, if necessary”. The only way they would agree to leave the jail was if the charges made against them were dropped. The Kennedy campaign saw this as an opportunity to gain popularity with the black community, while not taking part in a massive civil rights movement that would anger the white segregationists. They made a few phone calls to the Alabama police department and managed to get every protester’s, except Dr.King’s, charges dropped. King was kept in prison, for a separate charge of breaking his probation, pending a hearing.

Judge Oscar Mitchell found King guilty of violating his probation and sentenced him to “six months hard labour in the State Penitentiary at Reidsville”. However, shortly after this he was transferred to a maximum security prison in rural Georgia. This put King in immense danger as the prison was filled with prisoners serving life sentences who would gain national fame and respect within the prison for murdering a black celebrity like King. Hearing of this, Senator Kennedy phoned the Georgian Governor, Ernest Vandiver, and said that he found his imprisonment to be a judicial abomination and asked if there was some way the governor could help in releasing King. There is speculation as to what inspired Kennedy to try free Dr.King. Outrage at the failure of the judicial system with such a harsh punishment being given for such a small crime, sympathy for the King family and the black community in general as he and his family had faced a milder yet similar mistreatment for being of Irish descent, Political calculation as King had informed him he needs to do something big to gain the black vote and saw this as his chance or a mixture of all three. Whatever the cause, the senator knew he needed to act quietly as he would face immense retaliation from the segregationists and possibly lose votes in the process. In the phone call, Kennedy pleaded to the governor: “Governor, is there any way that you think you could get Martin Luther King out of jail? It would be of tremendous benefit to me.” On the same day, he also wrote a letter to the Governor but worded it carefully in fear of it going public. In the letter, he stated “I neither desire nor seek to interfere in the administration of Georgia Justice, but as a friend of the people of Georgia and as an American citizen I do wish to inform you of my interest”. 

Both the Nixon campaign and the Kennedy campaign had completely different strategies in dealing with King’s arrest. Nixon’s team found the route of minimum damage to the campaign was to remain silent and attempt to steal a portion of Southern white Democrats from Kennedy when he attempted to stand up for King. This infuriated Jackie Robinson who stated, after failing to plead with Nixon to act on the arrest, “Nixon doesn’t deserve to win”. The Kennedy campaign on the other hand, Harris Wofford and Sargent Shriver in particular, felt it was an opportunity to gain black support that couldn’t be passed up. Wofford was a personal friend of the King family and Shriver was Senator Kennedy’s brother-in-law as well as the head of the campaign’s civil rights section. Wofford was fearful for Dr.King’s safety, especially after a call with Coretta King, Martin Luther King’s wife, in which she said: “theythose in the prison are going to kill him”. Wofford himself said to Louis Martin, a black business man who was helping the campaign come up with strategies to increase their black voters, that “what Kennedy ought to do is something direct and personal, like picking up the phone and calling Coretta”. Following this idea, Wofford gave Coretta’s phone number to Shriver and told him of the plan. Shriver proposed the idea to the campaign in the hotel they were in at the time and was met with complete opposition. Ken O’Donnell, Kennedy’s key advisor, saw very little political upside and Kennedy himself was fearful that the phone call would be seen as a mere effort to gain votes and not a thoroughly sympathetic one. However once Shriver built his case again to Kennedy in private, Kennedy agreed to call her.


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