The Race to Save Martin Luther King Jr.’s Life and Win the 1960 Election
By Stephen Kendrick and Paul Kendrick
The African-American struggle for freedom and civil rights is replete with dramatic and harrowing stories, many involving intimidation and threats of violence from white supremacist defenders of the status quo. One of the most consequential of these stories is the subject of “Nine Days,” a compelling narrative written by the father-and-son team of Stephen and Paul Kendrick, co-authors of two previous books on race, law and politics.
The story begins in mid-October 1960 with Martin Luther King Jr.’s incarceration (his first) in a Georgia jail cell and ends three weeks later with John F. Kennedy’s narrow victory over Richard M. Nixon in the most competitive presidential election of the 20th century. Kennedy’s razor-thin triumph depended on several factors ranging from his youthful charm to Mayor Richard J. Daley’s ability to pad the Democratic vote in Chicago. But, as the Kendricks ably demonstrate, one crucial factor in Kennedy’s electoral success was the late surge of Black voters into the Democratic column. In all likelihood, this surge represented the difference between victory and defeat in at least five swing states, including Illinois, Michigan and New Jersey, ensuring Kennedy’s comfortable margin (303 to 219) in the Electoral College.
This last-minute shift was precipitated by two impulsive phone calls: one from John Kennedy to Coretta Scott King, expressing his concern for her jailed husband’s safety; the second from the candidate’s younger brother Robert to Oscar Mitchell, the Georgia judge overseeing King’s incarceration. Arrested on two minor charges — participating in a student-led sit-in at Rich’s department store in Atlanta and driving with an Alabama license after changing his residency to Georgia — King was thought to be in grave danger after a manacled, late-night transfer from an Atlanta jail to a remote rural facility in Klan-infested DeKalb County, and soon thereafter to the state’s notorious maximum-security prison in Reidsville.
Coretta King, panic-stricken that her husband might be murdered or even lynched, contacted Harris Wofford, a friend and longtime civil rights advocate working on Kennedy’s campaign. Along with Kennedy’s brother-in-law Sargent Shriver and the Black journalist Louis Martin, Wofford was part of a campaign initiative charged with expanding the Black vote for Kennedy by offsetting the senator’s mediocre record on civil rights — somehow without alienating the white South.
On Oct. 26, after consulting with Wofford, Shriver persuaded Kennedy to call Mrs. King. The conversation was brief, but the message was powerful: “I know this must be very hard for you. I understand you are expecting a baby, and I just wanted you to know that I was thinking about you and Dr. King. If there is anything I can do to help, please feel free to call on me.” When Bobby, Jack’s campaign manager, learned what had happened, he was furious, fearing this was a liberal stunt that would destroy his brother’s chance of winning the South. But after cooling down and realizing that the die was cast, he called Judge Mitchell to plead for King’s release on bail.
Mitchell agreed, King was soon released and on the last Sunday before the election, the Kennedy campaign blanketed the nation’s Black churches with a flier later known as the Blue Bomb. The choice was clear, the bright blue flier insisted: “‘No Comment’ Nixon Versus a Candidate With a Heart, Senator Kennedy.” With Black ministers leading the way, Kennedy won an estimated 68 percent of the Black vote on Election Day, 7 percent higher than Adlai Stevenson’s showing in 1956.
No brief review can do full justice to the Kendricks’ masterly and often riveting account of King’s ordeal and the 1960 “October Surprise” that may have altered the course of modern American political history. Suffice it to say that any reader who navigates the many twists and turns and surprises in this complex tale will come away recognizing the power of historical contingency.