Martin Luther King Jr. became a genuine national figure in the fall of 1955.
So did John F. Kennedy.
King emerged as a principled leader of a moral movement. Kennedy’s almost simultaneous emergence was more from calculation than commitment, but it was a consequential emergence nonetheless.
King became a national figure helping lead a boycott of the then-segregated public bus system in Montgomery, Ala., which caught the public’s attention as the civil rights movement was gathering steam. Kennedy’s emergence, on the other hand, was purely political, sparked by his father’s idea that after President Dwight Eisenhower’s serious heart attack earlier that year, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson should run for president with his money and his son as the running mate. Johnson quickly dismissed that approach, but it ignited a spark of ambition in John Kennedy — first to be Adlai Stevenson’s running mate in 1956 and then to run himself.
King famously pressed the “fierce urgency of now,” which he summarized in one of his most storied orations (at New York’s Riverside Church in 1967) as meaning that “tomorrow is today.” Kennedy the political leader, by contrast, grappled with what might be called the fierce urgency of how — no less important a consideration, though one always fraught with the danger of temporizing or failing to appreciate the moral, binary nature of a challenge.
Comparing and contrasting disparate historical figures can easily be artificial, misleading, even gimmicky. Steven Levingston, however, has walked this tightrope magnificently. In his important new book, “Kennedy and King,” the rest of us get an unusual chance to study each leader in part through the other over a tumultuous, pivotal eight-year period. As is always the case with major contributions to our understanding, Levingston’s is grounded in diligent research and detail. He acknowledges the centrality of grass-roots activism in all movements but argues for the greater importance of leadership or of “great men” in general and Kennedy and King in particular, through what he calls their “complicated relationship.”
“Kennedy and King towered over the national landscape, and their interactions defined the early years of the civil rights era,” he writes. “While broad, forceful trends propel the trajectory of history, prominent personalities like Kennedy and King ultimately guide the course of human life.”
At first, Levingston, The Washington Post’s nonfiction book editor, draws these two lives as parallel lines. Though their circumstances were diametrically different, each had to come into his own beyond the shadow of a powerful father.
King evolved more quickly in the wake of the year-long Montgomery campaign. Kennedy’s development was infuriatingly slow — a product of too much money and too little exposure and empathy. When he began consciously seeking national office in 1956, he played footsie with some of Jim Crow’s worst, including a young George Wallace; some of his early supporters were segregation-supporting governors like John Patterson of Alabama and J.P. Coleman of Mississippi.
And yet Kennedy’s potential was there. “Deeply curious, Kennedy absorbed new information, circumstances, and attitudes, and sifted them for their significance, adjusting his perceptions accordingly,” Levingston writes. “A voracious reader and patient listener, he was in a permanent state of becoming. As his observant young aide [Ted Sorensen] described Kennedy, ‘No attribute he possessed in 1953 was more pronounced or more important than his capacity for growth, his willingness to learn, his determination to explore and to inquire and to profit by experience.’ ”
The parallel lines began to move closer once Kennedy was a formal candidate in 1960. For their first meeting — after the Democratic nomination was virtually clinched — King made the trek to the Kennedy family apartment in New York. It did not go well. King saw firsthand the gaps in his counterpart’s background and commitment. And Kennedy foolishly sought a partisan endorsement that King’s position obviously precluded.
And yet each persisted. From King’s perspective, recruiting a nominee and then a president to the cause was a priority. Levingston cites a revealing article in Esquire that spring by James Baldwin: “Neither the Southerner nor the Northerner is able to look on the Negro simply as a man. They are two sides of the same coin, and the South will not change — cannot change — until the North changes.”
Along the way, each man lived what those of us who prefer euphemisms would call complicated, compartmentalized private lives. Levingston’s evidence suggests that their sexual indiscretions were irrelevant to their public conduct. But neither man appreciated the risk his reckless behavior posed for the millions of people whose hopes were invested in them.
In any case, the atmosphere between them improved with time. King noted the evolution in Kennedy’s positions and sentiment. As ever, Kennedy presented a mixture of a learning curve on civil rights with pure politics in the form of his realization that Johnson was going to get virtually all the Southern delegates to the Democratic convention anyway. Interestingly, much of their literal interaction involved efforts by Kennedy and his brother to spring King from jails — most famously in Atlanta near the end of the campaign but again in Georgia two years later during a frustrating and unsuccessful action in Albany and then during the inspiring horrors of Birmingham the following, climactic summer.
Levingston’s account of Birmingham, which chronicles the city’s impact on each protagonist, is simply riveting. He is especially illuminating in following Kennedy’s final steps when his attorney general brother nudged him to become “the nation’s first civil rights President.”
The moment came on the evening of June 11, 1963, with full-throated rhetoric from the Oval Office and the proposal that became the Civil Rights Act under Lyndon Johnson a year later. King wept with joy, emotion tempered by the murder of Medgar Evers early the next morning .
Levingston chooses to finish with King’s essential confidence in the future and in his role. He quotes King relentlessly insisting on now, including the need to keep nipping at Kennedy’s heels. And Levingston offers Kennedy’s realistic assessment in his search for how progress toward equality might be attained: “It often helps me to be pushed.”
How exciting it would have been to watch these two towering figures wrestle as allies into 1964.
Thomas Oliphant, with Curtis Wilkie, is the co-author of the new book, “The Road to Camelot, Inside JFK’s Five-Year Campaign.”
On Tuesday at 7 p.m., Steven Levingston will be at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. politics-prose.com.
By Steven Levingston
Hachette. 511 pp. $28