50 years ago: Kennedy intervenes for imprisoned Martin Luther King
25 October 2010
With days to go before his 1960 presidential contest with Vice President Richard Nixon, Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy intervened to secure the release of Martin Luther King Jr. from a Georgia state prison. Kennedy called King’s wife, Coretta, while Robert Kennedy personally pressured the judge in the case.
King had been arrested for participating in a Georgia sit-in. The misdemeanor charge of failing to vacate private property would not have resulted in prison, but the judge in the case seized on an earlier trumped-up charge against King—operating a motor vehicle without a proper Georgia drivers license—to order King’s jailing for four months. The civil rights leader was hustled away on October 26 in the early morning so that his attorneys could not lodge a habeas corpus plea.
Kennedy’s intervention arose from his emphasis during the campaign on what he argued was the erosion of US global prestige during the Eisenhower administration. He understood that the abuse of King by state authorities was an embarrassment to the US, which was attempting to portray itself in its Cold War duel with the Soviet Union as an unswerving advocate of democracy and freedom.
The move was not without its political risks. The Southern elite had been drifting out of the Democratic Party “New Deal coalition” for some time, and Nixon was leading in the polls in a number of Southern states. During the 1960 campaign, prominent “Dixiecrats” openly campaigned against Kennedy. Among them were Sen. Harry Byrd of West Virginia, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, and Gov. S. Ernest Vandiver of Georgia, who defended the prison sentence and called King a “race agitator.”