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How Kennedy Won the Black Vote : A Call to Coretta King Brought Groundswell of Support

In autumn, 1960, the Rev. Martin Luther King joined a student campaign to desegregate snack bars and restaurants in Atlanta’s department stores. Out of the demonstrations would come an event that would forever alter the political fortunes of John F. Kennedy, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate.

Eighty demonstrators, their watches synchronized, requested service in eight different segregated Atlanta establishments at precisely 11 o’clock on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 1960.

No Arrest Asked

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s group was refused service at a snack bar in the covered bridge that connected buildings of the Rich’s complex on either side of Forsyth Street.

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Company officials did not ask the force of gathered police officers to arrest them, however, and the demonstrators then took an elevator to the sixth-floor Magnolia Room, the store’s most elegant restaurant for shoppers.

There, the board chairman of Rich’s interceded personally. Failing to persuade the demonstrators to leave, he had them arrested under a state anti-trespass law.

As the first to be arrested, and the only non-student among the defendants, King was first to speak in court that night before Judge James E. Webb, who set bond at $500 pending trial.

Would Stay in Jail

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“I cannot accept bond,” King said. “I will stay in jail one year or 10 years.” In a brief, nervous courtroom oration, King explained that he did not want to go to jail or to “upset peace,” but that his decision to choose jail was in accord with the principles of a movement that went “far beyond” dining room segregation and other Southern folkways. He urged the judge to vacate the charges. When Webb refused, King was hustled off to spend his first night behind bars. Thirty-five students followed him in quick succession.

During negotiations with civil rights leaders on King’s release, Mayor William Hartsfield pledged to get King and the students out of county jail by Monday morning.

But the sense of crisis returned when jail officials notified Negro lawyers that they had received a bench warrant ordering them to hold King in jail on other charges. Cries of betrayal went up.

The lawyers eventually established that the warrant was issued on the authority of a judge in neighboring De Kalb County, where Emory University was located. The previous May, King and his wife, Coretta, had driven writer Lillian Smith to Emory Hospital there for her cancer treatments, and De Kalb police had stopped them for questioning--as was frequently done when patrol officers spotted interracial groups of travelers.

The officer, finding that King was still driving on his Alabama license about three months after moving to Georgia, had charged him with the misdemeanor of driving without a proper permit, and Judge Oscar Mitchell had sentenced King to a 12-month sentence, which he suspended, plus a $25 fine.

Now, Mitchell asked Fulton County to keep King in jail pending a hearing on whether the Rich’s arrest violated the terms of his suspended sentence in the May traffic case.

Ku Klux Klan Parade

Nearly 200 King supporters--including Roy Wilkins, executive director of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, who was in town, and four presidents from the Atlanta University complex--crowded into Mitchell’s hearing.

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The De Kalb County territory was alien to the Atlantans. Worse than unfamiliar, it was fearful, as everyone knew that county officials had recently sanctioned a Ku Klux Klan parade through the corridors of that same courthouse. The hearing was permeated with an atmosphere of latent race violence, and with survival instincts more suited to a murder trial than a traffic case.

Solicitor Jack Smith demanded a harsh penalty, saying that King had shown “no sign of penitence or remorse.” Donald Hollowell, King’s chief attorney, presented character witnesses and a host of arguments, but Mitchell banged the gavel, revoked King’s probation, and ordered him to serve four months at hard labor on a state road gang, beginning immediately.

At the headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Wyatt Tee Walker spread an alarm by telephone. The state road gang meant cutthroat inmates and casually dismissed murders. King had to be freed or he would be dead. This was the emergency message that Walker and a band of colleagues sent to every person they could think of who might conceiveably have influence.

In Washington, Harris Wofford, a friend of King in the civil rights section of the Kennedy campaign, responded to the alarm that same day by drafting a dignified statement of protest for Sen. John Kennedy to make.

His draft was promptly buffeted around in the Washington campaign headquarters and over the wires to the Chicago suburbs, where Kennedy was making speeches.

A Promise, a Demand

Inevitably, phone calls buzzed down into Georgia and back by the dozens, and Wofford was soon hearing that Gov. Ernest Vandiver had promised to get King out of jail on the condition that Kennedy make no public statement about the matter. Vandiver wanted to send out a strong, clear signal of segregationist resolve in Georgia.

The governor and his allies won the quick round of infighting within the Kennedy campaign, which earned the loser, Harris Wofford, a quick mollifying call from Sen. Kennedy that night.

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“What we want most is to get King out, isn’t it?” Kennedy asked. Wofford agreed. Still, he was miserable when Coretta King called soon thereafter wanting to know if he could help. He could not tell her about the Vandiver agreement, for fear that public news of it would make Vandiver renege on his promise, and he had no other good news to offer.

Disconsolate, Wofford went out for an after-work beer with co-worker Louis Martin. The two of them groped for ideas. They wanted to do something to help, but it had to be something that would not run them into the political buzz saw inside the campaign.

Wanted Encouraging Call

Out of these constraints came their idea of getting an important personage to call Coretta with encouragement. This was only a small gesture, but it was something that would make them feel better. Politically, they knew that there might be some advantage if they could keep the gesture beneath the threshold of white attention. If Vandiver and his allies were not aroused in anger, the Kennedy campaign might be able to spread the word privately among Negro voters.

Wofford called his own boss, Sargent Shriver.

Shriver gave him the kind of flyspeck attention lower aides usually get from officials standing within 30 feet of a candidate for President. In emergency shorthand, Wofford blurted out the headlines--King snatched off to state prison, no release from Vandiver, Coretta hysterical, the campaign civil rights office swamped with calls.

He said he and Louis Martin had given up the idea that Kennedy should make a public statement, but they had something simpler and less controversial in mind.

“If the senator would only call Mrs. King and wish her well,” Wofford said, “it would reverberate all through the Negro community in the United States. All he’s got to do is say he’s thinking about her and he hopes everything will be all right. All he’s got to do is show a little heart. He can even say he doesn’t have all the facts in the case. . . .”

A Hurried Agreement

“All right, all right,” Shriver said hurriedly. “Give me her number.” He took down the King home number in Atlanta, put it in his pocket, and rejoined the huddle around Kennedy.

Shriver waited, hoping that Ted Sorenson, Kenny O’Donnell, Pierre Salinger, Lawrence O’Brien, and the other members of Kennedy’s Kitchen Cabinet would rush off to telephones and typewriters. He did not want to mention Wofford’s idea in their presence.

If they did not strangle the idea on sight, the aides, who liked to speculate about how contemplated moves might play in the New York Times, would object that Kennedy could not possibly do anything quiet in the King case, which was on that morning’s front page.

Finally, Kennedy said he was not feeling well and went into the bedroom to lie down. Shriver alone followed him. Gently but urgently, he repeated Wofford’s proposition, stressing what he called King’s “lousy treatment” in jail and Mrs. King’s emotional breakdown.

“I think you ought to give her a call, Jack,” he concluded.

Kennedy sat up wearily on the bed. “What the hell,” he said. “That’s a decent thing to do. Why not? Get her on the phone.”

Short Phone Call

Shriver quickly pulled the paper from his pocket and dialed the number. When Coretta identified herself, Shriver said, “Just a minute, Mrs. King, for Sen. Kennedy,” and handed the phone to the candidate on the bed.

After greeting her, Kennedy said, “I know this must be very hard for you, and I just wanted you to know that I was thinking about you and Dr. King. If there is anything I can do to help, please feel free to call on me.”

“I certainly appreciate your concern,” Coretta said. “I would appreciate anything you could do to help.”

It was over within two minutes. Coretta called King’s mother, Alberta, fairly bursting with the news, and Shriver sneaked out the back door of the suite before the aides arrived to whisk Kennedy to the plane.

Later that night, the Kennedy campaign plane landed in New York. As Kennedy stepped off the plane, a reporter asked him if it was true that he had called Mrs. King earlier that day.

“She is a friend of mine,” said Kennedy, who had never met Coretta and never would, “and I was concerned about the situation.” As he brushed past the reporter, he said something softly about having a traitor in his camp.

News of Call Spreads

Still, the reporter had a confirmation. The next morning’s New York Times contained a 2-inch item on Page 22 noting that Kennedy had made a sympathy call to Mrs. King, and that a Republican spokesman said Vice President Nixon would have no comment on the King case.

In Atlanta, Donald Hollowell dispelled a far more intense gloom that morning when he trumpeted the news that Mitchell had changed his mind and signed an order to release King on $2,000 bond.

Later that afternoon, after King had been released, his father, Martin Luther King Sr., at a spontaneous mass meeting at Ebenezer Baptist Church, made an announcement that he had promised Wofford earlier that day.

“I had expected to vote against Sen. Kennedy because of his religion,” he declared. “But now he can be my President, Catholic or whatever he is. It took courage to call my daughter-in-law at a time like this. He has the moral courage to stand up for what he knows is right. I’ve got all my votes and I’ve got a suitcase, and I’m going to take them up there and dump them in his lap.”

The crowd roared approval, and roared again when civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy said it was time to “take off your Nixon buttons.”

Test of Faith

But King himself, almost visibly compressed by the sudden shift from prison to politics, spoke more personally about jail as a test of faith.

“We must master the art of creative suffering,” he said. All he said about the presidential election was that he would never let a candidate’s religion determine his vote.

Two weeks later, as legions of analysts sifted the results of Kennedy’s narrow victory over Richard Nixon, it did not take them long to discover that the most startling component of Kennedy’s victory was his 40% margin among Negro voters. In 1956, Negroes had voted Republican by roughly 60% to 40%; in 1960 they voted Democratic by roughly 70% to 30%.

Telephone Call, Victory

Many clouds distorted or obscured interpretation of the pivotal election, which emerged as a kind of mythological puberty rite for the United States as a superpower.

Still, one plain fact shined through everywhere: A phone call about the welfare of a Negro preacher was a necessary cause of Democratic victory.

This fact mattered dearly to Republican county chairmen as well as Democratic mayors, to students of politics as well as crusaders on both sides of the civil rights issue.

That something so minor could whip silently though the Negro world with such devastating impact gave witness to the cohesion and volatility of the separate culture.

That at the heart of this phenomenon was not just any preacher but Martin Luther King gave his name a symbolic resonance that spilled outside the small constituency of civil rights. Before, King had been a curiosity to most of the larger world--unsettling and primeval in meaning, perhaps, but as remote as the back seats of buses or the other side of town.

Now, as a historical asterisk, a catalytic agent in the outcome of the presidential election, he registered as someone who might affect the common national history of whites and Negroes alike.

From the book, “Parting of the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63" by Taylor Branch. Copyright, 1988, by Taylor Branch. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Simon and Schuster Inc.


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