Eyed through the prism of the 2020 election, the contest 60 years ago between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon looks even more like a different political world from a bygone American age. The first televised presidential debate in history bordered on the cerebral, an impressive advertisement for American democracy at the height of the Cold War struggle. It was also an era of patriotic bipartisanship, which explains why the liberal historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. felt compelled to dash off a quick campaign book, “Kennedy or Nixon: Does It Make Any Difference?,” to delineate points of divergence. Then there was Nixon’s acceptance of defeat. Despite claims of fraud in Cook County, Ill., where Chicago’s Democratic mayor, Richard J. Daley, allegedly conjured up a ghostly phalanx of phantom voters, Nixon quickly conceded rather than subject the country to an election dispute.

In “Nine Days: The Race to Save Martin Luther King Jr.’s Life and Win the 1960 Election,” Paul Kendrick and Stephen Kendrick retell the tale of another of the fabled episodes from that storied campaign: the arrest of the civil rights leader and the role played by the Kennedy brothers in securing his release from prison. They see it as “the fulcrum on which the 1960 election pivoted.”

It is an enthralling story, not least because it brings together such an extraordinary and era-defining dramatis personae. The playboy senator, who, at critical moments during the 1950s, had sided with segregationist Southern Democrats. The sitting vice president, who had befriended King and earned a reputation as the “Mr. Civil Rights” of the Eisenhower administration, but who sensed during the 1960 campaign that the party of Lincoln could make inroads in the South. The abrasive campaign manager, Robert F. Kennedy, whose political callousness vied with a nascent sense of social justice. And finally the central protagonist, King, the star of the Montgomery bus boycott, who was determined at the start of the ’60s to cement his status as the leader of a fractious civil rights movement.

Stephen and Paul Kendrick, a father and son writing team, have also thrust into the limelight players who operated in the shadows: Harris Wofford, Kennedy’s idealistic young civil rights adviser, who later became a U.S. senator; Louis Martin, a Black newspaperman who conspired with Wofford to push the cautious Kennedy brothers into adopting more liberal positions; and Donald Hollowell, King’s chief attorney.

With a galloping pace and fly-on-the-wall detail, they chronicle the nine days of the crisis, from King’s arrest on Oct. 19, 1960, during a sit-in protest at Rich’s department store in Atlanta to his release from the notorious Georgia State Prison at Reidsville in the run-up to the November election. In between, they recount how the Kennedy team tried to pull off the trickiest of balancing acts: appeasing Black voters, an increasingly influential constituency, without alienating Whites in what was then the “solid Democratic South.” For JFK and RFK, King’s imprisonment was very much a political conundrum rather than a moral dilemma. Their priority was not to lose the states of the old Confederacy.

“Nine Days” reminds us of the most dramatic episodes, such as Sargent Shriver’s dash to Chicago O’Hare airport to persuade John Kennedy to call Coretta King, the civil rights leader’s wife. The Kennedys’ brother-in-law, who was mocked within the family as “the House communist,” waited until the candidate’s “Irish mafia” of advisers had left the hotel suite to make his pitch. “That’s a good idea,” said JFK, passing what the Kendricks call “a test of decency . . . that Nixon failed.”

Bobby Kennedy was blindsided and vented his fury at Wofford and Martin, who ran the campaign’s Civil Rights Section and had come up with the idea of calling Coretta: “You bomb throwers probably lost the election.”

As fears for King’s personal safety intensified, so, too, did the political crisis. The book describes how the Kennedys worked with local Democratic power brokers, such as Georgia’s governor, Ernest Vandiver, to pressure Oscar Mitchell, the segregationist judge in the case, into releasing King. Nixon, meanwhile, remained silent, much to the annoyance of his leading Black surrogate, the baseball great Jackie Robinson. The Republican calculated that there were more White votes to be gained from not intervening than Black votes to be lost — a foretaste of his Southern strategy in 1968. “Nixon’s intuitive genius for exploiting racial division, born in the final stretch of the 1960 election, maintains its hold over us,” the authors write.

The Kendricks claim that the story of King’s imprisonment has been shortchanged by historians. If anything, the opposite is true. There are numerous accounts, including in Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63,” Steven Levingston’s “Kennedy and King: The President, the Pastor, and the Battle Over Civil Rights” and my own study, “The Bystander: John F. Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality.” Then there is Wofford’s memoir, “Of Kennedy and Kings: Making Sense of the Sixties.” No other episode during the 1960 campaign has received so much historiographical attention.

Despite such intense study, it has always been hard to prove that the King case provided the pivotal moment of such a close election, in which JFK won the popular vote by just 118,574 votes. Kennedy’s intervention clearly boosted Black Democratic support, but by that late stage he had already opened up a commanding lead among African American voters, partly because of Nixon’s Southern infatuation. As Martin put it, Kennedy’s intervention was “the icing on the cake. But the cake was already made.”

This book is rich in detail and ripe with cinematic potential — in parts it reads like a screenplay. But most of the script-lines will sound familiar because they are. Moreover, in the 1960 election, a television event was surely more consequential than King’s imprisonment: those 58 minutes of the first Kennedy-Nixon television debate rather than those nine days in Georgia.

Nine Days

The Race to Save Martin Luther King Jr.’s Life and Win the 1960 Election

By Stephen Kendrick and Paul Kendrick

Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
352 pp. $28