The battle to free the civil rights leader from a notorious Georgia prison was central to the 1960 presidential election

In his 1956 book Profiles in Courage, U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) examined politicians who did what they thought was right, despite having to cross voters. Kennedy said he was aiming to capture political decision-making’s “complexities, inconsistencies, and doubts.” Largely ghostwritten by aide Theodore Sorensen, Profiles won Kennedy a Pulitzer Prize. Four years later, he faced just such a predicament as those in his book.

In October 1960, students organizing sit-ins at businesses in Atlanta, Georgia, urged civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to join them. On October 19, a hesitant King did so, resulting in his arrest at Rich’s department store—with a twist that put Kennedy, now in a tight race for the presidency against Vice President Richard Nixon, on the spot. On October 26, a DeKalb County judge, citing a trumped-up traffic ticket issued to King that May, moved him from a relatively safe city jail into infamously brutal Reidsville State Prison, putting King in mortal peril and attracting national attention. Despite a flair for progressive-sounding rhetoric, Kennedy, a practical moderate, knew that while championing King might gain him Black votes, it surely would lose him the Jim Crow South. Playing it safe, Nixon was staying silent. However, yielding to pressure from outside and inside his campaign, Kennedy phoned King’s wife, Coretta, to express sympathy; brother and campaign manager Robert leaned on the judge. Behind the scenes, King’s men worked furiously to keep him alive.

The Kennedys’ seemingly tepid gestures made headlines; the hard work occurred backstage. Nine Days explains how Black activists and lawyers like Lonnie King and Donald Hollowell maneuvered to free King and campaign staffers like Sargent Shriver, Louis Martin, and Harris Wofford prodded the cautious Kennedys to embrace the moral—and tactical—benefits of doing right. Reidsville released King on October 27. On November 8, Kennedy narrowly beat Nixon.

 Besides chronicling individual actions, Nine Days portrays epochal shifts. The Kennedys’ calculated moves further aligned the Democrats with the civil rights cause. Nixon’s silence alienated many Black voters from the once-Lincolnian GOP. Yellow Dog Democrats began to go Republican, a tilt that intensified under Lyndon Johnson. Interweaving party pressures, back-channel chatter, personal ties, legal proceedings, and moral questioning, the Kendricks seamlessly illustrate political sausage-making in a life-and-death situation as fraught as any of recent notoriety. —Peter Kentz holds a graduate degree in history from the War Studies Department of King’s College, London.

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