This absorbing history by Steven Levingston chronicles the evolving relationship between John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. during the 1960s. The sequence of events covered in the 544-page volume took place in only three years, but those years were some of the most racially explosive in United States history.
Levingston focuses on the pinnacle of the Second Reconstruction when African-Americans and their white supporters forced the nation to take a look at itself and make good on the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. These laws promise freedom from slavery, equality under the law and the right to vote.
This dual biography depicts lunch counter sit-ins, the boycott of the segregated bus system in Montgomery Alabama, the Freedom Rides, the integration of the universities of Mississippi and Alabama, the March on Washington, and other critical events in the Civil Rights Movement. It recounts secret, commanding conversations between Kennedy and King as candidate Kennedy sought the civil rights leader’s endorsement for President. The book discloses the crises that moved these two great 20th century leaders from being foes to becoming allies in the struggle for racial justice and equality.
Kennedy was born with a “silver spoon in his mouth.” He had never had a black friend in his life. Levingston insists Kennedy was “a man of intellect and compassion,” but naïve about how complicated resolving racial conflicts could be. Until the last months of his life, the President saw the Civil Rights Movement as a distraction from his domestic agenda that included addressing taxes and steel prices and his foreign affairs agenda which centered on the Cold War.
The slow pace of Kennedy’s maturation toward addressing civil rights violations, the result of too little exposure to southern poverty and racial discrimination, infuriated King. When Kennedy finally took action, it was in response to the bludgeoning of Freedom Riders, the bombing of African-American churches, riots in Oxford, Mississippi, the use of water cannons and attack dogs by police, and other inhumane responses to nonviolent protests.
It was not until 1963, after the skirmishes in Birmingham and the standoff with Governor George Wallace, that Kennedy put aside his hesitancy to enter the Civil Rights Movement. Despite his previous fears that he would lose the Southern Democrat vote, he finally took the steps King had encouraged him to take all along.
Kennedy called civil rights a moral issue and declared it could not be addressed by brutal police action or reactionary measures. On June 11, 1963, Kennedy delivered a memorable speech to the country from the Oval Office, declaring racism to be immoral and calling for equality. A few hours after giving the speech, civil rights activist Medgar Evans was killed. The assassination of this courageous integrator of the University of Mississippi made Kennedy furious and his outrage finally spurred him to send actual civil rights legislation to Congress. This Civil Rights Act, however, had to wait until Lyndon Johnson was President to be guided to passage.
Levingston argues that King taught Kennedy how to be a President who leads in crises, rather than one whose chief aim was to protect his political fortunes.
As the United States still tries to come to grips with the legacy of slavery and the doggedness of discrimination, “Kennedy and King” is a stunning contribution to the literature of the Civil Rights Movement. It is an informative and powerful read.