In his biography of Sen. John Kennedy published during the 1960 presidential campaign, historian James MacGregor Burns portrayed the young candidate as charming and intellectual but he worried that Kennedy lacked the character to lead the nation in extraordinary times. Burns recalled that Franklin Roosevelt once described the presidency as “pre-eminently a place of moral leadership. All our great Presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain historic ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified.”
When President Kennedy moved into the Oval Office in 1961, America was in a state of escalating unrest over the unequal treatment of the nation’s 20 million blacks. Though he hadn’t yet realized it, the new president was hurtling toward a crucial test of his leadership on the top domestic and moral issue of the day: civil rights. The battle to end segregation in the South and to curb discrimination throughout the country also challenged the leadership skills of the most powerful voice in the black community, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Over the next two and a half years, Kennedy and King challenged each other to evolve as leaders. Their relationship stands as a poignant historical reminder to those in power today: that greatness awaits leaders who look beyond their differences, listen to disparate opinions, and maintain fidelity to our founding principles.