Editor’s Note: This is the seventh article in an 11-part Series on Race in America – Past and Present sponsored by the Kellogg Foundation.
In October 1961, Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy took an after-lunch stroll through the elegant hallways of the White House residence. Their meeting that day was not official: it was not in the White House’s appointment book, and King had not been formally invited to discuss any sort of business. It was instead a guarded and rather stilted introduction for leaders of professed goodwill, in a political climate that remained extremely sensitive about race.
When the men passed the Lincoln Bedroom on their tour, King noticed the Emancipation Proclamation framed on the wall, and took the opportunity to raise, ever so delicately, the pressing issue of civil rights. King suggested something radical: a second Emancipation Proclamation, a proposal that would become the centerpiece of King’s lobbying campaign for the next year.
Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights scholar and biographer of King, recently sat down with Washington Monthly editor Haley Sweetland Edwards and explained this idea, what happened next, and how Kennedy’s choice on the matter altered King’s thinking and the course of the civil rights movement.
How did the off-the-record meeting between King and Kennedy come about that October evening?
Jackie’s presence was a signal to King that he couldn’t say anything political that would ruin the moment-nothing about segregation or the sit-ins or the Freedom Rides that shook the country that year. They talked politely about their educations in Boston, their children, and that sort of thing.
Why, of all things, did King suggest a second Emancipation Proclamation?
King loved the idea of a second Emancipation Proclamation. He thought it would be easier for Kennedy than passing legislation-southerners had strangled every significant civil rights proposal in Congress for a century. At the same time, King hoped for an initiative by the president to make things easier for a struggling civil rights movement. King had not joined the Freedom Rides himself, nor yet accepted the personal sacrifice of a determined campaign to end segregation. He deeply hoped that if the president issued an executive order, there could be an easy way out for both of them.
What happened after that conversation outside the Lincoln Bedroom?
How did Kennedy respond?
For Kennedy, addressing segregation was a hornet’s nest. Because he knew that no Democrat could hope to be elected without the support of the solid South, it was never quite the right moment to become politically exposed on the issue of segregation.
During his 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy had promised action to reduce segregation wherever the powers of the federal government reached. He’d said he could end segregation in federally subsidized public housing “with the stroke of a pen” – in other words, without getting it through Congress. Once in office, however, he stalled. Supporters of civil rights actually mailed thousands of pens to the White House in a publicity campaign with a rare touch of humor, saying the president must have misplaced his pen.
Meanwhile, excruciating dramas over segregation continued after the Freedom Rides in the summer of ’61, which Kennedy said were embarrassing the United States. When Kennedy met with Premier Krushchev in Vienna, he said he had to endure criticism-from the Soviets, of all people, who had no freedom!-that America could not be free, judging by the way it treated its Black citizens. By September of 1962, it still took a lethal riot and a year’s occupation by 20,000 U.S. soldiers to secure the token integration of Ole Miss by its first Black student, James Meredith.
So the September anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation came and went without note from the White House?
Toward that end, after months of lobbying, King delivered another draft of the second Emancipation Proclamation to the White House on December 17, 1962. It was much shorter. By this point, he’d backtracked on asking the president to proclaim all the segregation laws null. Instead, this draft called only for the nation to celebrate the spirit and example of the Emancipation Proclamation throughout 1963, invoking Lincoln’s legacy behind President Kennedy.
How did Kennedy react to that draft?
After that, the White House announced a plan to host a social event for Lincoln’s birthday. From Kennedy’s point of view, it was a good solution-he could avoid the risk of issuing an executive order in a way that emphasized how much the emancipation tradition belonged to Republicans, not Democrats. He used Lincoln’s birthday as the occasion to invite many Black dignitaries into the White House, which had been mostly off-limits except in token ways. The White House endured a great deal of negative press for inviting Sammy Davis Jr., who had a White wife. The idea of a mixed-race couple in the White House was still very controversial in 1963-which in itself is a pretty good sign of how blighted and benighted people were about race.
Did King go to the White House event for Lincoln’s birthday?
It was after Kennedy blew this second deadline that King realized he had nothing left to wait for. He had to “go for broke,” as he called it, and head down to Birmingham, Alabama, which was considered the toughest bastion of racism in the South. It’s hard for people to understand what a big leap that was for him, but one way of understanding it is that he didn’t tell his own father, or the board of his protest group, that he was going. He didn’t want them to try to stop him.
Would it be fair to say that Kennedy’s failure to embrace the second Emancipation Proclamation catalyzed a turning point in the civil rights movement?
In the end, King authorized not only high school students, but also elementary school students as young as 6 years old, to participate in a huge wave of demonstrations beginning May 2. That’s when Birmingham brought out the dogs and fire hoses and shocked the world. That’s when the issue of segregation really broke through people’s emotional barriers, not only in the United States but around the world. Up until that point, people had always found ways to evade the problem, to say it was someone else’s responsibility or that time would solve the problem. King had always known on some level that he’d have to join the students in the street, but like all of us who are human, he looked for an easier way until every door was closed and his conscience wouldn’t let him avoid it anymore.
Did Kennedy miss a major moral opportunity to do the right thing?
Kennedy did finally go on television and propose a civil rights bill in June of 1963, but by that time demonstrations of sympathy for what had happened in Birmingham had broken out in hundreds of cities across the country. At that point, Kennedy didn’t have any choice but to calm the fires of protest before they consumed his government.
King succeeded in getting Kennedy to act, just not in the way he’d intended.
Taylor Branch and Haley Sweetland Edwards collaborated on this article. Branch is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who first wrote for the Washington Monthly in 1969. His new book, “The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement,” is being published in January 2013. Haley Sweetland Edwards is an editor of the Washington Monthly. This article, the seventh of an 11-part series on race, is sponsored by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation and was originally published by the Washington Monthly Magazine.