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VINSON: JFK and MLK: a moment in civil rights history

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Two of the more pivotal events of 20th Century American history are the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

Kennedy was slain by a sniper’s bullet(s) in Dallas, Texas, Nov. 22, 1963. With his assassination, the golden age of Camelot plummeted down into an abysmal pit of darkness.

King was killed by a single rifle shot April 4, 1968, as he stood on a hotel balcony in Memphis. The greatest “voice,” ever for the black race had been forever silenced, and the civil rights movement, some will argue, shifted into reverse.
However, this column is not about the horrific murders of Kennedy and King. Rather, it’s about how their paths crossed while both were still alive.

The 1960 presidential election remains one of the most controversial in history. The Democratic Party chose Massachusetts Sen. John Fitzgerald Kennedy as its candidate for president, with Texas Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson as his running mate for vice president. For the Republican Party it was Vice President Richard Milhous Nixon (vice president under President Dwight Eisenhower from 1956–1960) for president, and United Nations Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge for vice president.

Here’s where “controversy” entered the 1960 election: The Democratic ticket of Kennedy and Johnson edged out the Republican counterpart of Nixon and Lodge by a narrow margin of 34,220,984 to 34,108,157 in popular votes, and 303 to 219 in electoral votes. At the time, 1960, it was the closest presidential race since 1916.

Over the decades, many theories have swirled around the 1960 election. One dark tale has it that Kennedy’s brother-in-law/actor/ “Rat Pack” member Peter Lawford went to super crooner Frank Sinatra, and Lawford requested that Sinatra ask Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana, Sinatra’s friend, to fix—strong-arm—the Illinois ballots, and Giancana did so.
Maybe, maybe not(?) All we know for certain is that John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected as the 35th president of the United States of America on Nov. 8, 1960.

OK, so what does any of this have to do with Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.?

While on the campaign trail for the 1960 election, Kennedy had sought the endorsement of Harry Belafonte, a black, jazz-calypso singer and actor who had a great deal of influence in the African-American community. Belafonte also was a confidante of King.

During a face-to-face meeting, Belafonte quizzed Kennedy about King and was surprised to learn that the future president knew “very little” about the iconic civil rights leader.

At first, Belafonte refused to endorse Kennedy. However, Kennedy altered his stance on the civil rights movement, and Belafonte, ultimately, did support Kennedy.

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested for participating in a “sit-in” in Atlanta, Ga., on Oct. 19, 1960. (NOTE: “Sit-in” were civil rights protests where blacks would sit at “whites only” lunch counters and demand to be served.) King was initially sentenced to four months of hard labor. It has been written that Kennedy called Coretta Scott King (King’s wife) and spoke with her personally, expressing his sympathies for her husband’s incarceration and sentence.

Still, John F. Kennedy’s younger brother Robert Kennedy—who would go on to become U.S. Attorney General under his older brother—made a call to the Georgia judge presiding over King’s sit-in case, and King was released from jail on bail a few days later. News of King’s release from jail spread like wildfire, and blacks, the nation over, took notice.

Political pundits and historians claim that John’s call to Coretta and Bobby’s call to the Georgia judge were two of the shrewdest moves in political history: The black vote proved crucial in the swing states of Illinois, Michigan and South Carolina, which Kennedy carried.

Had Kennedy not carried the three aforementioned states, he would not have won the 1960 presidential election.

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civil rights, JFK, john f. kennedy, martin luther king jr., MLK
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