In the annals of assassinated political figures, presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy and pastor Martin Luther King, Jr., comprise the Mount Rushmore of tragic endings to America’s favorite sons.
Lincoln and King were casualties of this nation’s original sin: racism—and the legacy of anti-slavery and the movement for civil rights that each represented roughly one hundred years apart
The brothers Kennedy, however, were murdered for less specific if not altogether unknown reasons. But that doesn’t mean they had no connection to America’s longstanding hypocrisy of granting liberty and equality to only its white-skinned inhabitants. While the Kennedys belonged to a wealthy and politically ambitious Irish-American family, they were not deprived of the inner resources to sympathize with the hardships of others. Soon after entering the Executive Branch—the Oval Office for John with his younger brother serving as attorney general—they found themselves, unwittingly and somewhat guardedly, setting in motion the legislative agenda that would become the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, measures passed not long after President Kennedy’s death.
But it didn’t start out that way, which is the central theme of Steven Levingston’s masterful revisiting of the social upheavals of the 1960s, “Kennedy and King: The President, The Pastor, and the Battle Over Civil Rights.” Levingston, the nonfiction book editor of the Washington Post (disclosure: I am an occasional contributor to that page), offers a riveting reminder of the politically volatile conditions that made the attainment of civil rights both urgent and improbable. Racial justice in America is never without formidable obstacles—today still. The Kennedy presidency, with its distracting Cold War crises in Cuba, and King’s commitment to nonviolent resistance, which provoked appalling acts of violence from members of Kennedy’s own party, provided the new president with two battlefronts for which he was vastly unprepared and, to a large degree, embarrassingly outmaneuvered.
With so many epochal moments in American history taking place within such a short time period, Levingston makes fine use of the source material and shows himself to be an enchanting storyteller. There are vivid descriptions of the racial powder keg that was once the Deep South. Sit-ins, freedom rides, nonviolent protest marches, standoffs between southern governors and Justice Department officials at public universities, inhumane prison sentences, and yes, the brutal beatings inflicted on blacks and whites who dared challenge the lethal nostalgia for Jim Crow, come alive on the page. Here is one example of the “snarling mob of big-bellied men clenching cigars between their teeth, women brandishing purses like weapons, even children smacking and clawing riders” that Levingston recreates to startling effect.
In addition to the fast moving events, the inner lives of the president and the pastor, along with the conversations they had with associates, makes “Kennedy and King” an engaging reading experience. Levinson takes full advantage of the many charismatic and demonic political and cultural figures who played supportive roles in these evolving storylines—from Harry Belafonte, Jackie Robinson and James Baldwin, to J. Edgar Hoover, Bull Connor and George Wallace.
Despite the binary inference of the book’s title, there are actually three men in this morality play, with Bobby Kennedy serving as its moral center. His brother, the president, fluctuated in his commitment to civil rights, regarding it as more of a law enforcement matter than a moral imperative. Without his more principled and risk-taking younger brother, the president would have been lost.
For his part, King impatiently spends the first three years of the Kennedy administration trying to convince the president that racial injustice demands moral leadership, exercised directly from the White House. The aloof and indecisive president is prodded by his attorney general to make civil rights a legislative priority, to speak directly to the American people, to make common cause with the black struggle.
The contrasting personalities of these three titans of the 1960s is deftly rendered, adding dramatic tension to the assorted chess moves that culminated in King’s iconic words at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington, and Kennedy’s address before the nation following the mayhem in Birmingham—just a few months before he was killed.
In the end, the president came to realize that promoting democracy around the world as an antidote against the communist menace loses all potency if rights are denied African-Americans at home. He was also sickened by the sight of African-American children hounded by snarling dogs and flushed down the street by high-pressure fire hoses—all manned by southern law enforcement. The spectacle of racial hatred being played out on the nightly TV news and in the morning newspapers proved to be too much for the nation, and its president.
In less than five years, all three men would be assassinated. The loss is still staggering to comprehend; their imprint on this nation’s history singular, but tragically unfulfilled.