How Martin Luther King Persuaded John Kennedy to Support the Civil Rights Cause – New York Times

Kennedy was amused. Imagine Martin Luther King having a bigot for a father, he said. Then: Well, we all have our fathers, dont we?

That story has been around at least since 1965, when Arthur Schlesinger Jr. published A Thousand Days. So too the stories Levingston goes on to tell in Kennedy and King about the sit-ins, the Freedom Rides; the Albany, Ga., and Birmingham campaigns; the integration of the universities of Mississippi and Alabama; the march on Washington and much more, including several memorable conversations between King and Kennedy. Levingston thanks his wife and numerous archivists for their help with the research, but his greatest debt, fully acknowledged, is to books available in most public libraries: oral histories, memoirs, biographies and narrative histories, including Parting the Waters, the first volume of Taylor Branchs monumental trilogy of America in the King years.

Yet people who think the past is important should be the last to make a fetish of the new. As long as racial equality and justice elude us, writers, artists and filmmakers will return to the climactic years of our Second Reconstruction, when African-Americans and their white allies forced the nation to begin to make good on the promise of freedom, equality under the law and voting rights embedded 100 years earlier in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. Thats a good thing, all the more so as the present generation, which was born in an era of mass incarceration of black men and which has come of age at marches and rallies protesting police killings, tries to figure out where we should go from here. Levingston, the nonfiction book editor of The Washington Post and the author of Little Demon in the City of Light and The Kennedy Baby, writes with passion and flair. If these pages dont rouse you, call your doctor.

There are places where Levingston the writer (displaying the occupational weaknesses for stark contrasts and sudden twists of drama) gets the better of Levingston the historian. It is wrong to say even with King as a source that in 1955, at the time of Kings arrival in Montgomery, the Southern black was hunched in fear, cringing and passive, broken by the white man. As far back as Howell Rainess My Soul Is Rested (1977), authors have shown that everywhere King went, the stage for confrontation was set by community leaders and grass-roots organizers, including, as Levingston notes, Kings own father. In Montgomery in 1955, one of those organizers was Rosa Parks, whom Levingston describes as an efficient volunteer secretary of the N.A.A.C.P.s local chapter (in whose heart lay a well of quiet activism). Parks may have been good with the carbon paper and coffee machine, but by the time of the bus boycott, her rsum also featured decades of not-so-quiet resistance. She had been fighting Jim Crow injustice, including violence against black women, since the Scottsboro trials in the 1930s.

Levingston frames his book as a study in leadership, and it is, but not the kind he suggests in his introduction, when he evokes Thomas Carlyle and writes of great individuals, or heroes, shaping the worlds destiny. Kennedy was not a leader in civil rights. Until the last months of his life, he saw the struggle for equality as a righteous distraction from critical domestic issues (including taxes and steel prices) and Cold War foreign affairs. When he acted, he did so in response to the horrific violence peaceful protest made manifest: the clubbing of Freedom Riders; the bombing of black businesses, homes and churches; the attacks on demonstrators with jack boots, water cannons and dogs; the racist riots in Oxford, Miss. Only in June 1963, after the battle of Birmingham and the confrontation with George Wallace in Tuscaloosa, did Kennedy do what King had been urging him to do all along: call civil rights a moral issue and acknowledge that the country faced a crisis that could not be met by repressive police action or quieted by token moves or talk. Hours after Kennedys speech, Medgar Evers was assassinated. Kennedy sent legislation to Congress, but it was left to Lyndon Johnson to make the Civil Rights Act of 1964 law.

That leaves King, who was indeed a leader, as well as a teacher. Its a difficult thing, he said, to teach a president. Levingstons point is that King taught Kennedy to be a leader, and he did, but he did not do it alone, and Kings relationship with his own followers was always complicated. Homegrown heroes, old and young (the subject of books like John Dittmers Local People, Charles M. Paynes Ive Got the Light of Freedom and Danielle L. McGuires At the Dark End of the Street), taught King and his closest associates while they in turn taught the Kennedys. There go my people, King said, quoting Gandhi. I must catch up with them, for I am their leader.

Levingstons frame does not fit, but he is too good a writer to get in the way of his history for long. Kennedy and King will most likely leave readers thinking that what is needed today is not more leaders, a few men and women shaping our destiny, but more followers. What is needed are ordinary people: alert, informed, engaged, mobilized, idealistic but not nave, critical but not hopeless, confident about who they are and what they want but able and inclined to work with all sorts of others, exercising rights won at enormous cost, starting with the right to vote. What is needed, in short, are more citizens, prepared to lead our leaders toward a more promising land.

James Goodman, a professor of history and creative writing at Rutgers University, Newark, is the author of Stories of Scottsboro, Blackout and But Where Is the Lamb?

A version of this review appears in print on July 2, 2017, on Page BR9 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Profiles in Caution.

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How Martin Luther King Persuaded John Kennedy to Support the Civil Rights Cause – New York Times

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June 29, 2017   Posted in: Martin Luther King |

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