October 18, 2017

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Men of the movement

Relationship between Kennedy, King helped shape civil rights in America

John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were two men from dramatically different backgrounds, different experiences and different perspectives.

But both of these men were emerging leaders, talented orators and believed to be the future of their communities. Coming together at a particular moment in history, the way they worked together to address civil rights would affect the future of the United States for decades.

In his deeply researched new book Kennedy and King: The President, The Pastor, and the Battle Over Civil Rights, journalist, author and editor Steven Levingston closely examines the relationship between King and Kennedy and their contributions to the civil rights movement.

As the movement grew during the late 1950s, candidates in both major political parties walked the line and tried not to take sides — knowing that to declare firmly for or against the issue could be political suicide. Many African-Americans did not trust Kennedy because of his non-committal approach to civil rights and the campaign was worried.

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John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were two men from dramatically different backgrounds, different experiences and different perspectives.

But both of these men were emerging leaders, talented orators and believed to be the future of their communities. Coming together at a particular moment in history, the way they worked together to address civil rights would affect the future of the United States for decades.

The Associated Press files</p><p>Protests in Alabama and Mississippi in 1963 had Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (third from left) pushing then-U.S. president John F. Kennedy (fourth from right) to take a stand on human rights.</p>

The Associated Press files

Protests in Alabama and Mississippi in 1963 had Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (third from left) pushing then-U.S. president John F. Kennedy (fourth from right) to take a stand on human rights.

In his deeply researched new book Kennedy and King: The President, The Pastor, and the Battle Over Civil Rights, journalist, author and editor Steven Levingston closely examines the relationship between King and Kennedy and their contributions to the civil rights movement.

As the movement grew during the late 1950s, candidates in both major political parties walked the line and tried not to take sides — knowing that to declare firmly for or against the issue could be political suicide. Many African-Americans did not trust Kennedy because of his non-committal approach to civil rights and the campaign was worried.

But just weeks before the 1960 election, King was arrested at a lunch counter sit-in and sentenced to jail time. An adviser convinced Kennedy to call King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, which, of course, made it into the media. When the votes were tallied, black voters had come out in droves for Kennedy, helping him win by a narrow margin.

Levingston’s style is succinct and clear, and he doesn’t shy away from the poor decisions and/or mistakes made by either man. Rather, he presents them as men with faults and flaws who worked to serve their communities and their country.

As Freedom Riders began their protests and the civil unrest grew, Kennedy was forced to pay more attention to the issue. Still, the differences in their personal communication styles made their relationship awkward. While King was methodical and even shy, Kennedy was more extroverted and liked to keep things light.

By 1963, protests in Mississippi and Birmingham, Ala. were in the news and King was pushing the president harder and harder to take a decisive stand. On June 11, Kennedy did, making one of the strongest speeches on civil rights on national television and committed to introducing civil rights legislation. Sadly, the assassinations of both men — Kennedy in 1963 and King in 1968 — left the future of the country in other hands.

Writes Levingston, "although he never claimed credit, King had played an instrumental role in Kennedy’s transformation. He had directed his civil rights campaigns at the White House, knowing no real change was possible without the moral leadership of the president. His oratory, his pitched street battles, and his repeated jailings forced a distant president to pay attention."

Often, a history book can get too far into the weeds, but this story is perfectly balanced between the details and the bigger picture. Kennedy and King is an absorbing read on the relationship between these two influential men and their work to build a stronger nation.

Julie Kentner is a Winnipeg writer.

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