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Politics Mondays: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And The Presidential Election of 1960

When Richard Nixon campaigned in Atlanta shortly after the Republican convention, many blacks came out to cheer; it seemed that Nixon could do quite well among blacks nationwide. Yet it was during a trip to Georgia that Nixon was ultimately confronted with the tempting prospect of stealing the South away from Kennedy and Johnson. Nixon's campaign throughout Georgia was received so enthusiastically that Nixon now believed he had a chance of winning wide southern support, even with a civil rights platform he'd agreed to in Chicago.

Nixon included states' rights in his speeches in the South, a racist code word Kennedy studiously avoided. The response of southern audiences to Nixon’s new rhetoric was quite strong. The trip south, which Nixon had planned as a tactical feint rather than a real attempt to win such Democratic strongholds as Georgia and North Carolina, became instead a turning point in Nixon's strategic thinking. After clearly opting for a pro-civil rights move designed to peel off northern Negroes in the key battleground states of the Northeast and Midwest, Nixon now chose to mingle his pro-civil rights record and platform with talk of local governmental authority and states’ rights.

Lodge was designated to handle outreach to blacks, while Nixon handled most of the speaking in the South. Lodge spent the bulk of his time in the Northeast, while Nixon refused to campaign in Harlem. Regardless, there was substantial black support for Nixon, because of his record. One black publisher in Detroit compared the tickets thusly: " The Nixon-Lodge ticket is a more attractive one on civil rights than the Republicans have ever put up and many Negroes feel that Lyndon Johnson is weak on civil rights." Yet the Republican stradles on civil rights lacked the deft skill that characterized the Kennedy-Johnson maneuvers, as Henry Cabot Lodge was about to demonstrate.

On the same evening that Kennedy spoke in New York City to several groups on topics foreign and domestic, including civil rights, Lodge also spoke to some of the same groups on a variety of topics. Kennedy's speech on foreign policy to Democratic officials made the front page of The New York Times, while his speech on civil rights was relegated to page 23. Lodge's speech on civil rights, however, was front-page news: NEGRO IN CABINET PLEDGED BY LODGE. Whether planned or not, Lodge's Harlem speech had surely overshadowed anything that Kennedy said in Harlem or to his liberal conference on constitutional rights.

Lodge's quixotic and sudden commitment to integrating the highest levels of national government was an uncoordinated and inept attempt to attract black support. Whoever edited Kennedy's Harlem speech would have known that pledging to integrate the cabinet would cause headlines from Maine to Mississippi. As Lodge met with southern Republicans in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the next day, he faced public and private criticism of his pledge, which he hastily tried to reframe, if not retract. Nixon's fury at his running mate was immediate and intense, perceptible even to the press corps that he kept at a studied distance. What Nixon wanted from Lodge was the type of subtle racial electioneering Kennedy was practicing, using speeches that avoided inflammatory and provocative promises that could alienate white southerners.

So deep was the southern anger at Lodge that Nixon was forced to hold a public meeting with him to iron out differences, less than a month before the election. Yet Lodge's pledge was only the highest-profile example of his failure to grasp the delicate nature of civil rights issues in 1960. On the very day of the Nixon-Lodge meeting, Lodge appeared on NBC, advocating more Blacks in the Foreign Service, the end of segregated schools and public facilities, and new legislation guaranteeing blacks the right to vote, again in the form of a pledge. With the possible exception of the legislation, Lodge said nothing that Kennedy had not advocated at one time or another in speeches in the North. Kennedy never offered these positions, however, on national television. Indeed, given the opportunity to do so during the televised debates, Kennedy did just the opposite, hewing to his vague emphasis on executive leadership. Lodge, a politician almost singularly lacking in understanding of the South, could not compete with Kennedy and Johnson in that respect. As historian Stephen Ambrose concluded, "Lodge could hardly have done more to help Kennedy and hurt Nixon.... Immediately after Lodge's pledge the polls showed a sharp decline in Nixon's Southern support." And when Nixon retracted his running mate's pledge about the cabinet, it alienated blacks and liberals.

Nixon and Lodge entered the final stage of the campaign in disarray on civil rights. Nixon's original strategy of seeking to take black votes away from the Democrats had become hopelessly muddled by his switch to pro-southern rhetoric. Then the campaign lurched back to strident advocacy of racial equality with the multiple pledges of Lodge. When these were almost immediately undercut by Nixon, the picture presented to both blacks and southern whites was one of confusion and political ganesmanship. Nixon and Lodge were running different campaigns, with Lodge still holding to the original game plan and Nixon trying to win parts of the South. By contrast, Johnson and Kennedy while campaigning seperately, were coordinated in their approach to civil rights and the South. It was at this moment that the travails of Martin Luther King Jr. entered the campaign and presented both campaigns with one last chance to make a moral statement on civil rights.

The civil rights movement was in a quiescent period during much of 1959-60 because civil rights leaders were anxious that no demonstrations take place during the election season. However, that all began to change as a new tactic swept through the segregated South: sit-ins. These largely student-led demonstrations were the most direct challenges yet to the white hegemony of the South. The photos of calm, committed black students being abused by rabid white crowds were very effective at bringing civil rights back to the nation's attention. While the issue was by no means central to the political agenda of 1960, both parties felt obliged to mention sit-ins in their platforms.

Martin Luther King Jr. became involved in sit-ins in early October, and his arrest with a large group of demonstrators did not receive much national attention at first. Soon, however, King was singled out for special treatment. A local judge held that the arrest violated his parole on a traffic violation and immediately sentenced King to four months in a dangerous penitentiary far from the relatively progressive environs of Atlanta. King's imprisonment was now a matter of international focus. The threat to King's life was apparent to all of his close associates. While in prison, he could be killed in a staged escape or he could be put into an area with hostile white prisoners and come to an "accidental" end. Moreover, four months of hard time for a traffic violation seemed to be Jim Crow justice at its worst. Two weeks before an extraordinarily tight presidential election, the situation was instantly perceived by political observers to be electoral dynamite.

Immediately, conflicting pressures to act or remain aloof were put on both campaigns. Three southern governors informed Kennedy headquarters that any expression of support for King would cost the ticket the South. Wofford and Louis Martin, Kennedy's civil rights advisers, pushed for Kennedy to get involved. Wofford's idea was to have Kennedy call Coretta Scott King, the wife of the imprisoned leader, rather than release a statement critical of Georgia's judicial procedures. Wofford and Martin bypassed the normal chain of command and arranged for Sargent Shriver to present the idea directly to Kennedy. Kennedy's reaction was "impulsive, direct, and immediate." From his hotel room outside O'Hare, Kennedy dialed Mrs. King and spoke briefly with her.

When campaign manager Robert Kennedy heard what Wofford and Martin had done behind his back, he shouted at them, "You bombthrowers probably lost the've probably lost three states and...the civil rights section isn't going to do another damn thing in this campaign!" Yet Bobby himself quickly got into the act and directly called the judge to plead for King's release. WIth these two phone calls, the Kennedy brothers symbolically put their sympathies with King and against the segregationist South. Shortly after the second phone call, King was released.

Nixon's campaign, however, had remained silent on the whole affair. Prior to King's release, Jackie Robinson, now a fervent Nixon supporter, made a personal plea to his candidate to top Kennedy and telephone King. Robinson's efforts failed to convince Nixon. Much later, Nixon blamed his press secretary Herbert Klein, for not reporting Nixon's belief that King's sentence was unfair and then blamed the Eisenhower administration for not intervening as Nixon and the attorney general allegedly were seeking. Yet it was well within Nixon's power to express his feelings: in a symbolic gesture, to a reporter on background, or through an official statement. Indeed, a black White House aide, E. Frederic Morrow, attempted repeatedly to get Nixon's advisers or Nixon to send telegrams to Mrs. King or Georgia officials. Morrow was told by press secretary Klein that it would be poor election strategy to intervene. At the same time Morrow was trying frantically to get Nixon to take a stance, Deputy Attorney General Lawrence Walsh was also attempting to get Nixon or Eisenhower to speak out on the King imprisonment. Walsh had written a statement that would have put the Eisenhower administration, or at least the Nixon campaign, squarely on the record against King's treatment. However, Eisenhower decided against involving himself in a local judicial matter, and Walsh was unable to contact either Rogers or Nixon until after Kennedy's dramatic intervention. Nixon's silence must be interpreted as a choice, certainly influenced by the backlash in the South agaianst Lodge's statement only two weeks before. The burned fingers of the "Negro in the Cabinet" debacle taught Nixon to treat the red-hot King imprisonment gingerly.

Nixon's silence produced sizable political gains for Kennedy. The Kennedy campaign distributed over two million copies of a pamphlet entitled " No Comment Nixon Versus a Candidate With a Heart, Senator Kennedy." Handed out at black churches on the Sunday before the election, the pamphlet powerfully demonstrated Kennedy's moral commitment to black progress. If African-Americans had been uncertain about which candidate to support between two men running on strong civil rights platforms but soft-pedaling aspects of their plans to soothe segregationists, this incident gave them a reason to vote Democratisc.

Would Kennedy pay a price for his support of King, as he had been warned he would? There were some signs of southern anger; days after Kennedy's intervention, four honorary colonels on the staff of the governor of Georgia resigned in protest of Bobby's phone call to the judge. Yet the coverage in the mainstream media of Kennedy's involvement was surprisingly limited. In Time, King's release from prison appeared as the last item of the national news section. Kennedy's name did not appear until the final paragraph. As journalist Theodore White put it, "The entire episode received only casual notice from the generality of American citizens in the heat of the last three weeks of the Presidential campaign. But in the Negro community the Kennedy intervention rang like a carillon." Had Nixon made an issue of Kennedy's involvement, and given the press reason to highlight Kennedy's actions, Nixon might have benefitted from a white backlash. Instead, Nixon was the victim of a surge in black support for Kennedy, without an accompanying Nixon boom among southern whites. Indeed, Nixon received the worst of both worlds. With King's father endorsing Kennedy, and King's top lieutenant telling blacks to "take of your Nixon buttons," whatever black support Nixon could have hoped to garner from his record and his platform evaporated.

This type of "narrowcasting" of a symbolic gesture was possible only because of the segregation in the regional and national media. The black press covered Kennedy's intervention extensively, but the white press made little of the story. Some articles did discuss Kennedy's phone call but noted that the reaction among southern whites was "milder than expected." Kennedy had found a way to convey to black Americans a moral commitment to their plight, while not greatly arousing the antipathy of segregationist whites.

Months before the arrest, in their second meeting, Kennedy had asked King what his campaign could do to reassure black voters of Kennedy's commitment to civil rights. King replied, "I don't know what it is, Senator, but you've got to do something dramatic." Owing to the unexpected actions of an obscure state judge in Georgia, King himself said, in his only known comment on the affair: "The finest strategies are usually the result of accidents."

The above is an excerpt of "Running On Race" by Jeremy D. Mayer available in the Black Electorate Bookstore

Monday, January 20, 2003

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