When Martin Luther King Jr. and Richard Nixon Were Friends

Martin Luther King Jr. and Richard Nixon had one of the most unlikely political friendships, but it came apart over an arrest with serious consequences for Nixon’s legacy and civil rights.

01.21.13 9:45 AM ET

I’ve had a hard time coming to terms with RN, as Richard Nixon liked to refer to himself in his more imperial moods. It may sound odd, but the more I immersed myself in his pre-presidential life in the course of writing a book (in other words, before Watergate, Vietnam, and China), the more annoyed I became with him. Sometimes I had an urge to scold him—to tell him to do what he surely knew was right rather than go for the quick political advantage. This urge was never stronger than when it involved his relationship with Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday (he would have been 84 on Jan. 15) is commemorated this month as a federal holiday—the same month as Nixon’s centennial was marked. There once was a real connection between the two men, but it more or less ended with RN’s spineless behavior during the 1960 presidential campaign, after Dr. King was arrested on phony charges stemming from a traffic violation. Coretta Scott King had been terrified; she worried with good reason that her husband might be killed en route to Georgia State Prison in Reidsville, and she appealed to the Nixon and John F. Kennedy campaigns to intervene.

Nixon, however, demurred; he said that it would be “grandstanding” to speak out, according to his aide William Safire. Nixon’s real motive, though, seems clear: it was a close election and he was willing to lose black support if it meant gaining a new harvest of white votes in the once-Democratic south. Eight years later, this approach became the carefully considered “Southern strategy.”

What was most bothersome wasn’t simply that Nixon knew better, although he certainly did. It was rather that he’d rejected a kind of friendship with Dr. King and turned away from his own civil-rights record, which was excellent and far more genuine than President Eisenhower’s. King, when he was 28 and famous for his role in the Montgomery bus boycott,met Nixon in March 1957, in Africa, when Ghana celebrated its independence. They agreed to stay in touch and met three months later in Nixon’s office at the Capitol to discuss among other topics the 1957 Civil Rights Bill. That summer Nixon worked to strengthen the bill, taking on such powerful Southern Democrats as Richard Russell, who opposed it, and the Senate Majority Leader, Lyndon Johnson, who had been pushing for a weaker version of the voting-rights section.

“I will long remember the rich fellowship which we shared together and the fruitful discussion that we had,” Dr. King later wrote to the vice president, telling him “how deeply grateful all people of goodwill are to you for your assiduous labor and dauntless courage in seeking to make the Civil Rights Bill a reality… This is certainly an expression of your devotion to the highest mandates of the moral law.” Nixon replied in much the same spirit: “I am sure you know how much I appreciate your generous comments. My only regret is that I have been unable to do more than I have. Progress is understandably slow in this field, but we at least can be sure that we are moving steadily and surely ahead.” They talked frequently after that, and in September 1958, after a deranged black woman in Harlem stabbed Dr. King almost fatally, Nixon was among the first to write to him. He praised King’s “Christian spirit of tolerance,” which he said would ultimately win over “the great majority of American for the cause of equality and human dignity to which we are committed.”

What were you thinking? I found myself asking my imagined RN when I thought about his response to the arrest. In an oral history a few years later, Dr. King seemed to ask the same question: “I always felt that Nixon lost a real opportunity to express … support of something much larger than an individual, because this expressed support of the movement for civil rights in a way. And I had known Nixon longer. He had been supposedly close to me, and he would call me frequently about things, getting, seeking my advice. And yet, when this moment came, it was like he had never heard of me, you see.”

Even as a matter of practical politics, Nixon made a bad bet. John and Robert Kennedy helped to win Dr. King’s release, and soon enough their campaign distributed two million copies of a pamphlet titled  “‘No Comment’ Nixon Versus a Candidate With a Heart, Senator Kennedy” to well chosen voters. It can’t be proved that this made the difference in an election in which the popular vote turned out to be the closest ever (Nixon and Kennedy were separated by about 112,000 votes out of sixty-nine million cast), but it’s a fact that President Eisenhower in 1956 got some 40 percent of the black vote and that Nixon in 1960 won just 32 percent—not bad by modern Republican standards, but still a steep drop. Four years later, facing Barry Goldwater, Lyndon Johnson won 94 percent of the black vote, which set a demographic pattern that endures.

If Richard Nixon could have seen past his political calculus and spoken forthrightly—had been true to his own record—the view of the centennial RN might be altogether different. With more black support, Nixon in 1960 might have won three or four more states—and the presidency—and would have assumed the office with an obligation to strengthen civil-rights laws. In that counterfactual world, Watergate would be known only as the name of a hotel-and-condo complex being built close to Washington’s new performing arts center. Instead of being celebrated this month as Dr. King is, the centennial Nixon became, and remains, the perplexing figure who more than once had a chance to do what he surely knew was right and then went wrong.