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.
At a private breakfast meeting during the presidential campaign, Kennedy told King that the nation needed “strong executive leadership” on civil rights, according to King’s recollection of their conversation. Kennedy assured King that he was ready to push forward to achieve equal rights for all Americans. “If he received the nomination and was elected,” he told King, “he could give this kind of leadership.”
But after his election, President Kennedy pulled away from his promises to King, shoving civil rights into the background and focusing instead on his economic and foreign policy agenda.
As the Freedom Rides of 1961 spurred violence in the South, bloodying young black and white activists, Kennedy maintained his distance, placing his brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy at the forefront of the crisis. The Freedom Rides desegregated interstate travel, terminals, restaurants, waiting rooms, water faucets, restrooms—and also inaugurated a more confrontational approach to protest. What the president failed to understand was that the momentum of the civil rights movement was quickening and that he could no longer address reform at his own slow pace.
The Freedom Rides, organized largely by students, deployed a strategy that was more aggressive than anything King had undertaken. King had shot to fame as the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956, which desegregated the city’s buses. But, unlike the confrontational approach of the students, his tactic was passive resistance. Blacks just refused to ride Montgomery buses until the government and the companies gave in. After his success, King disengaged somewhat from protest, concentrating on his speaking engagements, raising money, and building the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Though King was still young, the even younger student activists of the Freedom Rides were coming up behind him, and forcing King to consider their direct, yet nonviolent, approach. King had not ridden on the buses during the Freedom Rides and instead mostly offered oratorical support and showed up during extreme crises. As historian Adam Fairclough has observed King regarded the rides as “brave but also reckless and provocative.” According to Fairclough, King’s “leadership seemed less than inspiring and betrayed an impression of timidity and indecisiveness.”
King was searching for a way to reclaim unquestioned stature as the leader of the movement. He recognized the Freedom Riders’ success in spurring government action by eliciting a brutal, highly publicized response from white racists. King absorbed the example, pondered it, and understood its profound implications. What was needed, he realized, was not just passive resistance but sustained, publicized pressure on the government.
After speaking at the National Press Club in July 1962, King warned President Kennedy about his continued inattention to civil rights. “There is still a great deal to be done,” he told reporters, “and I must honestly say that I do not think the president has yet given the kind of leadership in this area that the enormity of the problem demands.”
The president’s hesitation drove King to adopt the more aggressive tactics he had observed among the younger activists. In planning his biggest undertaking yet—an assault on segregation in Birmingham, Alabama—King prepared himself for the front lines. He decided he would march with other protesters, stare down the brutal police of Birmingham, and face certain jailing. As Andrew Young, a campaign leader, observed of King: “That, I think, was the beginning of his true leadership.”
And King didn’t stop there. He agreed to enlist children as foot soldiers for equal rights, sending students as young as 6 into the streets to face water cannons and police dogs and arrest. The television images and the newspaper photos of young protesters blasted to the ground by high-powered fire hoses and confronted by snarling German shepherds disgusted President Kennedy.
King’s audacity was now influencing the president, just as Kennedy’s inertia had influenced King to bolder action. Kennedy was observing and learning and evolving; he was approaching Roosevelt’s ideal of presidential leadership.
Finally he recognized what King had repeatedly tried to impress upon him: that civil rights was a moral issue. President Kennedy had come to view the black predicament through the eyes of a black citizen and to accept that only significant federal action could bring racial progress.
On June 11, 1963, he went live before the nation to announce he would introduce landmark civil rights legislation. In his speech, he demonstrated an empathy for the black experience in America: “If an American, because his skin is dark... cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?”
The president’s transformation was a triumph not only for black Americans but for King himself. Although never claiming credit, King had played an instrumental role in Kennedy’s awakening on civil rights. His oratory, his pitched street battles, and his time spent in jail forced a distant president to pay attention and grow into the moral leader the nation needed.
As Congressman John Lewis told me: “The very being, the very presence, of Martin Luther King Jr. pricked the conscience of John F. Kennedy.”
Steven Levingston, the nonfiction editor of The Washington Post, is author of Kennedy and King: The President, the Pastor, and the Battle Over Civil Rights.