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Cover image for Kennedy and King : the president, the pastor, and the battle over civil rights
Kennedy and King : the president, the pastor, and the battle over civil rights
First edition.
Physical Description:
xi, 511 pages, 8 pages of unnumbered plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
"To teach a president" -- Two men, two worlds -- A call to Coretta -- "Tomorrow may be too late" -- "Pawns in a white man's political game" -- It often helps me to be pushed" -- Epilogue.
An account of the contentious relationship between the thirty-fifth president and Martin Luther King, Jr. throughout the tumultuous early years of the civil rights movement explores their influence on one another and the important decisions that were inspired by their rivalry.

"The story of civil rights in the early 1960s is a tale of courageous sit-ins and marches, police brutality, violence, and murder. It is also a tale of two men: John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., a pair of gifted, charismatic, and ambitious leaders from strikingly different worlds. When they first met in 1960, as Kennedy lobbied King to back his bid for the presidency, the wealthy Irish Catholic and the Southern Baptist preacher had little natural rapport. Kennedy was cool and Witty, King taut and high-minded. Kennedy was slow to embrace a full-throated position on equality for black Americans, fearing the wrath of southern Democrats. Over the next three years---as America was transfixed by a series of dramatic demonstrations across the South--it was King, more than any other figure, who led Kennedy to finally make a moral commitment to civil rights; and it was Kennedy's hesitation that prompted King to achieve his greatest potential as an activist. This unique and transformative relationship has never been explored in such gripping fashion. From Harry Belafonte's Manhattan apartment to the Birmingham city jail to Joseph Kennedy's Palm Beach estate, [this book] delivers a narrative both public and intimate: the risky strategies, secret meetings, outrageous personalities, and private struggles that absorbed the lives of these two men--and forever bound them together."--Jacket.


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Book 973.922 LEV 1 1
Book 973.922 LEV 1 1
Book 973.922 LEV 1 1
Book 973.922 LEV 1 1
Book 973.922 LEV 1 1

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A New York Times Editors' Choice Pick

" Kennedy and King is an unqualified masterpiece of historical narrative.... A landmark achievement."---Douglas Brinkley, New York Times bestselling author of Rosa Parks

Kennedy and King traces the emergence of two of the twentieth century's greatest leaders, their powerful impact on each other and on the shape of the civil rights battle between 1960 and 1963. These two men from starkly different worlds profoundly influenced each other's personal development. Kennedy's hesitation on civil rights spurred King to greater acts of courage, and King inspired Kennedy to finally make a moral commitment to equality. As America still grapples with the legacy of slavery and the persistence of discrimination, Kennedy and King is a vital, vivid contribution to the literature of the Civil Rights Movement.

Author Notes

Steven Levingston is the non-fiction book editor of the Washington Post and, most recently, the author of Little Demon in the City of Light. He has lived and worked in Beijing, Hong Kong, New York, Paris, and Washington and reported and edited for the Wall Street Journal and International Herald Tribune.

Reviews 6

Publisher's Weekly Review

Levingston (Little Demon in the City of Light), nonfiction book editor at the Washington Post, comprehensively evaluates the antagonistic interplay of Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy during the civil rights movement. He contrasts the unstoppable forces of King's soaring oratory, Christian principles, and moral authority with the immovable objects of Kennedy's privilege, political calculation, and presidential power. Their push and pull unfolded in a cultural cauldron that encompassed the Montgomery bus boycott, the freedom rides, King's stints in jail, the children's crusade in Birmingham, Gov. George Wallace's segregationist stand at the University of Alabama, and the march on Washington. Students of the movement will appreciate Levingston's portrayals of two key behind-the-scenes movers and shakers: Harry Belafonte, the entertainer who served as the intermediary between the pastor and the politician, and Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, whose early support of King was pivotal in the pastor's triumphal moving of the president from political agnosticism to action, which led to President Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. "Through his persistence, King developed a successful strategy for speaking truth to power," Levingston writes. "Although ambivalent from the start, President Kennedy demonstrated that progress occurred when power listened and learned." Agent: Dan Lazar, Writers House. (June) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Booklist Review

*Starred Review* In January 1963, African Americans earnestly hoped in vain for decisive federal action to mark the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, action giving belated substance to Lincoln's promissory note. Levingston here recounts the story of how those cruelly disappointed hopes surged anew just five months later when President Kennedy delivered a stirring speech urging Congress to pass civil rights legislation conferring full citizenship on the nation's largest minority group. Since the president delivering the galvanizing speech in June was the same one ignoring black activists' pleas in January, Levingston's story necessarily traces one man's change of heart. But the inspiration for that remarkable change comes largely from a second man namely, Martin Luther King Jr. Readers watch as the Kennedy-King relationship matures between 1960 and 1963 as King's bold rhetoric and bolder acts first capture the attention, and then pierce the conscience, of a patrician president initially paralyzed on civil rights issues by fears of political backlash. The author of Profiles in Courage learns real-life valor from a fearless Baptist pastor: Kennedy finally recognizes what he must do after seeing this preacher of Christian love and nonviolence press for racial justice even when it means imprisonment and death threats. A riveting episode in American history.--Christensen, Bryce Copyright 2017 Booklist

New York Review of Books Review

EARLY IN THIS absorbing history, Steven Levingston tells the story of John F. Kennedy's telephone call to one Coretta Scott King two weeks before the 1960 presidential election. Her husband had been arrested during a sit-in at an Atlanta department store, and then, after all those arrested with him were released, held for violating the terms of his "probation" for an earlier traffic violation: driving (while black) with an expired license. The judge sentenced the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to six months' hard labor. The next thing Mrs. King heard was that her husband had been taken, in the dark, from the DeKalb County jail and driven more than 200 miles to the maximum security state prison in Reidsville. Behind the scenes, Kennedy pressed the Georgia governor to arrange King's release. But Kennedy refused to speak out. The risk of alienating white Southerners seemed greater than any possible reward. In the end, Harris Wofford and Sargent Shriver persuaded him to telephone Mrs. King, who was six months pregnant. Kennedy told her he knew how hard it must be for her. His own wife was due in a month. "If there is anything I can do to help, please feel free to call on me." Released on bail a day later, King mentioned Kennedy's call and Vice President Richard Nixon's silence. King did not endorse Kennedy, but news of the phone call spread quickly and undoubtedly energized black voters in a close election. Among those whose minds were changed was a black Southerner who (unlike most) could vote. He was Martin Luther King Sr. "I had expected to vote against Senator Kennedy because of his religion," Daddy King said. "Now he can be my president, Catholic or whatever he is." Kennedy was amused. "Imagine Martin Luther King having a bigot for a father," he said. Then: "Well, we all have our fathers, don't we?" That story has been around at least since 1965, when Arthur Schlesinger Jr. published "A Thousand Days." So too the stories Levingston goes on to tell in "Kennedy and King" about the sit-ins, the Freedom Rides; the Albany, Ga., and Birmingham campaigns; the integration of the universities of Mississippi and Alabama; the march on Washington and much more, ineluding several memorable conversations between King and Kennedy. Levingston thanks his wife and numerous archivists for their help with the research, but his greatest debt, fully acknowledged, is to books available in most public libraries: oral histories, memoirs, biographies and narrative histories, including "Parting the Waters," the first volume of Taylor Branch's monumental trilogy of America in the King years. Yet people who think the past is important should be the last to make a fetish of the new. As long as racial equality and justice elude us, writers, artists and filmmakers will return to the climactic years of our Second Reconstruction, when AfricanAmericans and their white allies forced the nation to begin to make good on the promise of freedom, equality under the law and voting rights embedded 100 years earlier in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. That's a good thing, all the more so as the present generation, which was born in an era of mass incarceration of black men and which has come of age at marches and rallies protesting police killings, tries to figure out where we should go from here. Levingston, the nonfiction book editor of The Washington Post and the author of "Little Demon in the City of Light" and "The Kennedy Baby," writes with passion and flair. If these pages don't rouse you, call your doctor. There are places where Levingston the writer (displaying the occupational weaknesses for stark contrasts and sudden twists of drama) gets the better of Levingston the historian. It is wrong to say - even with King as a source - that in 1955, at the time of King's arrival in Montgomery, "the Southern black" was "hunched in fear, cringing and passive, broken by the white man." As far back as Howell Raines's "My Soul Is Rested" (1977), authors have shown that everywhere King went, the stage for confrontation was set by community leaders and grass-roots organizers, including, as Levingston notes, King's own father. In Montgomery in 1955, one of those organizers was Rosa Parks, whom Levingston describes as an "efficient volunteer secretary of the N.A.A.C.P.'s local chapter" (in whose "heart lay a well of quiet activism"). Parks may have been good with the carbon paper and coffee machine, but by the time of the bus boycott, her resumé also featured decades of not-so-quiet resistance. She had been fighting Jim Crow injustice, including violence against black women, since the Scottsboro trials in the 1930s. LEVINGSTON FRAMES his book as a study in leadership, and it is, but not the kind he suggests in his introduction, when he evokes Thomas Carlyle and writes of "great individuals, or heroes," shaping "the world's destiny." Kennedy was not a leader in civil rights. Until the last months of his life, he saw the struggle for equality as a righteous distraction from critical domestic issues (including taxes and steel prices) and Cold War foreign affairs. When he acted, he did so in response to the horrific violence peaceful protest made manifest: the clubbing of Freedom Riders; the bombing of black businesses, homes and churches; the attacks on demonstrators with jack boots, water cannons and dogs; the racist riots in Oxford, Miss. Only in June 1963, after the battle of Birmingham and the confrontation with George Wallace in Ttiscaloosa, did Kennedy do what King had been urging him to do all along: call civil rights a moral issue and acknowledge that the country faced a crisis that could not be met by "repressive police action" or "quieted by token moves or talk." Hours after Kennedy's speech, Medgår Evers was assassinated. Kennedy sent legislation to Congress, but it was left to Lyndon Johnson to make the Civil Rights Act of 1964 law. That leaves King, who was indeed a leader, as well as a teacher. "It's a difficult thing," he said, "to teach a president." Levingston's point is that King taught Kennedy to be a leader, and he did, but he did not do it alone, and King's relationship with his own followers was always complicated. Homegrown heroes, old and young (the subject of books like John Dittmer's "Local People," Charles M. Payne's "I've Got the Light of Freedom" and Danielle L. McGuire's "At the Dark End of the Street"), taught King and his closest associates while they in turn taught the Kennedys. "There go my people," King said, quoting Gandhi. "I must catch up with them, for I am their leader." Levingston's frame does not fit, but he is too good a writer to get in the way of his history for long. "Kennedy and King" will most likely leave readers thinking that what is needed today is not more leaders, a few men and women shaping our destiny, but more followers. What is needed are ordinary people: alert, informed, engaged, mobilized, idealistic but not naive, critical but not hopeless, confident about who they are and what they want but able and inclined to work with all sorts of others, exercising rights won at enormous cost, starting with the right to vote. What is needed, in short, are more citizens, prepared to lead our leaders toward a more promising land. 'It is a difficult thing,' King said about Kennedy, 'to teach a president.'

Choice Review

The quiet, reserved Martin Luther King, Jr. worked tirelessly to bring the ebullient, extroverted John F. Kennedy to see civil rights as a moral crusade demanding the same urgency the president devoted to the economy and foreign affairs. Needing southern support, Kennedy moved cautiously, while King, the pastor, educator, and activist, chided him for not acting forcefully. King knew the press covered his every word and that the president would read about it. As government inaction caused King to move toward militant protest, he unsuccessfully urged Kennedy to accept a second emancipation proclamation. The violence in Albany, Georgia, and Birmingham, Alabama, along with the attempts to desegregate the universities of Alabama and Mississippi, brought into focus the division between states' rights and federal power, forcing Kennedy to accept the moral imperative that brought on the civil rights bill. Though neither universally accepted nor always successful, together King and Kennedy altered the American landscape to create legislation moving the nation closer to the Declaration of Independence's acknowledgement that all are created equal, "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights." This book is a must read for understanding the civil rights movement. Summing Up: Essential. All public and academic levels/libraries. --Duncan R. Jamieson, Ashland University

Kirkus Review

A dual biography chronicles three years of upheaval in the civil rights movement.Journalist Levingston (Little Demon in the City of Light: A True Story of Murder and Mesmerism in Belle Epoque Paris, 2014, etc.), the nonfiction book editor of the Washington Post, synthesizes voluminous materialbiographies, memoirs, histories, and archival documentsto produce a comprehensive examination of the relationship between John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. That relationship was fraught even before the two men met in secret in 1960: Kennedy had decided to run for president and hoped for an endorsement from King, already a major figure in the fight for racial equality. "King had much to offer Kennedy," writes the author, but Kennedy had little but promises to offer King. "He did not have the grasp and the comprehension of the depths and dimensions of the problem," King recalled. Moreover, Kennedy was reluctant to upset Southern Democrats by aligning himself with King. Distilling many sources, Levingston wavers in his analysis of Kennedy's commitment to civil rights: some sources hail him as a man "sympathetic to the suffering of others" with "a reflexive dislike of unfairness." Others saw him as a political opportunist, "deaf" to "cries for freedom," feigning interest in order to win the black vote but ignoring civil rights unless it directly benefited his own agenda. Although Levingston insists that Kennedy was "a man of intellect and compassion," some evidence he presents supports the idea that the Kennedy brothers saw civil rights as the "moral issue" that would burnish the president's image. A stronger argument would have helped to reconcile this contradiction, which persists throughout the book. Similarly, Levingston presents Robert Kennedy as sometimes passionately sympathetic to civil rights and sometimes harshly impatient of King's pleas for help from the White House. The author does make a case for the brothers' naivet, calling them "novices plunged into a maelstrom far more complicated than they realized at first." Not surprisingly, King was repeatedly frustrated in his dealings with them. A well-documented narrative that would benefit from more consistent analysis. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Library Journal Review

In June 1960, Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy (1917-63) met secretly with civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-68), seeking his endorsement. King demurred. He was wary of Kennedy's ambition and equivocal record on civil rights. Conversely, the privileged future president failed to grasp the moral exigency of the civil rights question. Kennedy and King spent the early 1960s building pressure on each other-King leading mass civil disobedience to awaken the conscience and moral courage of the president and America, Kennedy trying to protect protestors from white mobs as well as to contain the political tumult produced by King's protests. Hardheaded and ambitious, but also keen to grow into his office, Kennedy distilled the essence of his relationship with King into one simple sentence: "It helps me to be pushed." Three years into his presidency, Kennedy finally went all-in on civil rights, denouncing brutal police crackdowns on peaceful marchers and introducing new laws in Congress. VERDICT Biographers struggle to say anything new about Kennedy or King, but in this bracing dual biography, Levingston (Little Demon in the City of Light) adds an upbeat, humanistic flavor to the intersecting lives of his subjects. This book will hold wide appeal. [See Prepub Alert, 11/14/16.]-Michael Rodriguez, Univ. of Connecticut © Copyright 2017. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

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