Stanford University The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute
This Month in the Movement: John F. Kennedy wins presidential election
November 01, 2013

On 8 November 1960, John F. Kennedy won the presidential election over Richard Nixon. Although King remained publicly neutral throughout the campaign, declining to endorse either candidate, the developing relationship between him and Kennedy was apparent even before the final count.

Less than three weeks before the election, King was arrested while participating in a sit-in demonstration with a group of students at Rich's department store. The sit-in was part of a coordinated series of demonstrations against segregated institutions and facilities throughout the Atlanta, and King's involvement landed him in the state prison in Reidsville, Georgia.

King's imprisonment drew national attention and after five days in jail, presidential candidate and then-Senator Kennedy placed a call to Coretta Scott King voicing his sympathy and support for Dr. King. Simultaneously, Robert F. Kennedy placed calls to officials in Georgia, including the judge overseeing the trial, seeking to hasten King's release.

The outpouring of support for King succeeded in facilitating his release on 27 October 1960. Upon learning of Senator Kennedy's call, King affirmed his public neutrality but voiced his gratitude for the Senator's actions, stating "I hope that this example of Senator Kennedy's courage will be a lesson deeply learned." The call also touched Martin Luther King, Sr., who had previously voiced his reservations about Kennedy's Catholic faith. In light of Kennedy's involvement, King, Sr. spoke out in support of the Senator's candidacy

Despite King's reticence to pitch his support, Kennedy's actions were viewed favorably by African American voters and civil rights supporters. Early in the election, many felt that neither candidate possessed a demonstrated track record on civil rights. Kennedy's phone call help sway support, and in an election that was determined by a difference of less than one percent of the popular vote, likely contributed to his victory.

Following his inauguration, Kennedy was slow to address civil rights in the first years of his presidency. With violence increasing against civil rights demonstrators in the South, and after continued pressure from King and other civil rights leaders, Kennedy gradually increased federal intervention and his public support for civil rights. In the wake of widespread police brutality against demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama in May and early June of 1963, Kennedy made a public address on the moral need for the United States to provide "equal rights and equal opportunities" to all its citizens. Following his address, Kennedy introduced a comprenshive civil rights bill to Congress that eventually became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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