During the first two and a half years of President John F. Kennedy’s administration, he struggled to develop a bond with Martin Luther King Jr. and to come to grips with the civil rights movement. In his book, Kennedy and King: The President, The Pastor, and the Battle Over Civil Rights, Steven Levingston described the “often clashing but always respectful” relationship between the Irish Catholic politician and the Southern Baptist preacher.
As a candidate for President in 1960, Kennedy had coveted King’s support, knowing the favor it would bring him among black voters. But after meeting with Kennedy in June 1960, King still believed that the candidate had only an intellectual commitment [to civil rights], not an emotional one. King diplomatically insisted that he declined to offer a political endorsement because it would be inappropriate for him to do so.
Shortly before the election, however, Kennedy made a private phone call expressing his concern to King’s pregnant wife Coretta while King was incarcerated. When word of the call got out, it “reverberated within the black community” and helped him narrowly defeat the Republican candidate Richard Nixon.
But as President, Kennedy disappointed King and the other leaders of the civil rights movement by failing to prioritize their struggle as a national issue. The president was pressed relentlessly to “confront racist Southern politicians and end the indignity of segregation” in American society, but his attention was repeatedly drawn to other issues.
King believed that, like some other politicians, Kennedy saw the Cold War expediency of removing segregation and discrimination as stains on the nation. But he accused the president of not insisting on their removal simply because they were “morally wrong.”
By the time some of the most brutal confrontations of the civil rights campaign occurred in Birmingham, Alabama in late 1962, however, the movement’s leaders had come to believe that Kennedy was different from previous presidents. They believed that a “tacit alliance” had developed between the Kennedy administration and their cause, and that if they could arouse public support, “this administration would hear it and respond.”
On June 11, 1963, after watching Governor George Wallace refuse admission to black students at the University of Alabama, Kennedy determined to deliver a nationally televised speech that night. “As Wallace left the doorway,” remembered Kennedy advisor and speechwriter Ted Sorensen, “the president turned around and said to me, ‘I think we’d better give that speech tonight.'” Kennedy’s political advisors opposed a public speech calling for civil rights legislation, but his brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy argued for it and won.
Acting with “unusual impulsiveness,” Kennedy told his Commerce Secretary Luther Hodges, “I may lose the legislation, or I may even lose the election in 1964, but there comes a time when a man has to take a stand and history will record that he has to meet these tough situations and ultimately make a decision.”
In what The New York Times called “Kennedy’s Finest Moment,” the president empathized with the suffering of black citizens as never before, committing his support to them, and calling on all Americans to do the same. For the first time, he called civil rights a moral issue (“as old as the scriptures and…as clear as the American Constitution”) in sharp contrast to the refusal of his predecessor to do so.
Following the speech, which laid the foundation for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, King exclaimed, “That white man not only stepped up to the plate, he hit it over the fence!” US Congressman John Lewis gave King much of the credit for persuading Kennedy to take a stand, saying, “The very being, the very presence, of Martin Luther King Jr. pricked the conscience of John F. Kennedy.”
King said Kennedy in 1963 became a leader who was “willing to stand up in a courageous manner” to address moral issues. And Kennedy ultimately recognized the role King had played in his decision to embrace the struggle of blacks for civil rights when he said to King, “It often helps me to be pushed.”