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Kennedy and King: The President, the Pastor, and the Battle Over Civil Rights

Review

Kennedy and King: The President, the Pastor, and the Battle Over Civil Rights

In the half century since their assassinations, the twin subjects of Steven Levingston’s engrossing new book largely have passed into American myth. Whether it’s the young president’s call to public service on a frigid day in January 1961, or the eloquent preacher’s stirring vision of a new age of equality on a steamy August afternoon in 1963, most people old enough to remember that era do so with a sense that our country has failed to attain the heights to which they summoned us.

In KENNEDY AND KING, Levingston, the nonfiction book editor of the Washington Post, skillfully negotiates the sometimes treacherous path between hagiography and hatchet job. It’s a superb portrait of two gifted men and their indelible impact on American history, chronicling the tortuous courtship --- as one's passion collided with the other's ambivalence --- that finally wedded them in the fight for civil rights, an outcome that was far from foreordained. It’s also an outstanding history of the early days of the civil rights movement, from the Freedom Rides to the March on Washington, revealing the heroism of the people willing to risk their lives for that cause.

As the son of a wealthy Boston Irish-Catholic family that lacked meaningful personal contact with black people, John F. Kennedy’s “emotional grasp of black hardship did not go deep.” And while there’s little evidence he harbored any serious racial prejudice, becoming a champion for African-American equality after he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1946 and elevated to the Senate in 1952 was never at the top of his priority list.

"Steven Levingston's outstanding book reminds us how much progress this country was able to make toward racial equality through the work of two courageous and honorable men --- sympathetic souls, if uneasy allies --- and how very far we have yet to go."

It wasn’t until Kennedy stood on the verge of the Democratic presidential nomination, in June 1960, that he and Martin Luther King Jr. met for the first time, a meeting that failed to yield the endorsement Kennedy eagerly sought and King had no intention of offering. But a few days before the election, Kennedy, to the dismay of key advisors, made a call to King’s wife to express his concern for her imprisoned husband. His gesture unleashed a flood of black support (if still no King endorsement) that helped ensure a narrow victory over Richard Nixon.

Encouraged by that display of electoral power, for the next two-and-a-half years, as Levingston meticulously describes it, “[i]n telegrams and phone calls to the White House, in television interviews and newspaper articles, in face-to-face meetings, and in fiery rhetoric from the pulpit, the pastor pressed the president to confront racist Southern politicians and end the indignity of segregation.” Kennedy often chafed under this onslaught, and while there was never a question about his sympathy for King's cause, his administration's tepid gestures were a constant source of frustration to the activist minister.

That was because the push for a greater commitment to civil rights clashed with Kennedy's innate political caution and, more starkly, with his reluctance to alienate powerful Southern Democratic senators, the proud possessors of “stunning political skills those racists deployed to obstruct legislative proposals that they viewed as threats to their Southern way of life.” This jeopardy to Kennedy’s domestic agenda was only one of his problems. As Levingston briefly notes, the early 1960s --- a period when tensions spiked with the erection of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban missile crisis --- was one of the most perilous eras of the Cold War, a reality that made foreign policy a constant concern.

But King was not working in a vacuum, as Levingston demonstrates in a narrative that's action-filled and pulsing with intense human drama. Even those familiar with the harrowing story of the Freedom Riders or the events of the Birmingham boycott in 1963 will find his vivid account of these and other critical moments of the civil rights movement both informative and moving. Apart from the savage attacks inflicted on protesters, some of them not yet old enough to vote, it's still disturbing to recall the virulently racist rhetoric of high public officials in the Deep South, determined to preserve legally mandated segregation nearly a century after the end of the Civil War.

With the resolution of the crisis surrounding Governor George Wallace's opposition to admission of black students to the University of Alabama in June 1963, King’s tireless efforts at persuasion and the fearless work of his supporters, schooled in the philosophy of nonviolence, finally bore fruit. Impulsively deciding to deliver a speech to the nation announcing his intention to introduce civil rights legislation, Kennedy finally was “prepared to ignore politics.” In his hastily composed but eloquent address, Levingston argues, he “found his moral voice, his commitment of mind and heart; without hesitation or equivocation he embraced black justice.”

Less than six months after that speech, John F. Kennedy was dead. His assassination helped propel the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Martin Luther King Jr. carried on his fight, though hampered by the deepening Vietnam War, until his own murder in 1968. Steven Levingston's outstanding book reminds us how much progress this country was able to make toward racial equality through the work of two courageous and honorable men --- sympathetic souls, if uneasy allies --- and how very far we have yet to go.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on July 7, 2017

Kennedy and King: The President, the Pastor, and the Battle Over Civil Rights
by Steven Levingston

  • Publication Date: June 6, 2017
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction, Politics
  • Hardcover: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Hachette Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316267392
  • ISBN-13: 9780316267397