If only Richard Nixon had listened to Jackie Robinson — the GOP might be doing better than Trump today
Sixty years ago this month, the celebrated baseball player and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. found themselves at a crossroads with the Republican Party.
Flashing images of two iconic figures of the civil rights movement — Jackie Robinson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — were included in recent TV campaign ads for President Donald Trump. Almost immediately there was an outraged push-back from both men’s families.
Robinson’s daughter Sharon emphasized that Trump represents the opposite of everything her father stood for. King’s daughter Bernice commented on the wide gulf between Trump and her father’s vision of the “Beloved Community.”
As it happens, it was 60 years ago this month that Jackie Robinson and Dr. King found themselves at a crossroads with the Republican Party.
On. Oct. 19, 1960, three weeks before that year’s presidential election, King was arrested as part of a student sit-in at Rich’s department store in Atlanta. This prompted a campaign crisis for both candidates for president, Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon — but especially for Nixon. The Republican vice president had befriended King four years before, and King had voted Republican in 1956. King’s father had endorsed Nixon in the 1960 election on the day before his son’s arrest.
King found himself in two courtrooms and three jail cells over nine days. Because of an earlier $25 traffic charge, King was sentenced to four months hard labor in Georgia State Prison. Nixon’s top Black surrogate, retired baseball legend Jackie Robinson, sought to change that, desperately urging Nixon to speak out for King’s release — before the Kennedy campaign did.
Robinson believed Kennedy to be untrustworthy on civil rights, and Black Republican leaders envisioned a future in which Nixon would lead the GOP back to the affiliation with Black people forged by Abraham Lincoln 100 years before. Some political analysts believed, based on the progress President Dwight D. Eisenhower had made with Black voters in 1956, that Nixon could win up to half the Black vote.
Yet as the days of King’s imprisonment ground on, an interracial trio of Kennedy staffers working on civil rights — Louis Martin, Harris Wofford and Sargent Shriver — urged Kennedy to make a bold move, and the candidate eventually called Dr. King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, to express his concern. Kennedy also had his brother Robert call a judge outside of Atlanta to help arrange King’s release.
Robinson, meanwhile, knowing that Nixon’s advisors were warning him “not to rock the racial boat,” urged those advisors to push instead for action. Nixon, Robinson told them, “has to call Martin right now, today. I have the number of the jail.’’
Robinson made his case directly to Nixon, as well, only to walk away with tears in his eyes.
Nixon “thinks calling Martin would be ‘grandstanding,’” Robinson told Nixon speechwriter William Safire. “Nixon doesn’t deserve to win.”
After being released from prison, King did not formally endorse either candidate, but he expressed such gratitude to Kennedy that many Black voters got his meaning. Kennedy’s savvy Black advisor, Chicago Defender editor Louis Martin, made sure of that by having an estimated two million pamphlets about the event distributed through Black churches.
Despite Robinson’s best efforts on behalf of Nixon, Kennedy swung seven percentage points of the Black vote back to his column from the previous presidential election. Black votes were the difference in effectively switching nine states in the excruciatingly tight 1960 election.
In the years that followed, King would push Kennedy and then President Lyndon B. Johnson towards the achievements of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act. And Robinson, in 1963, had this to say about the Republican Party:
“The danger of the Republican Party being taken over by the lily-whitest conservatives is more serious than many people realize.”
Ninety-four percent of Black Americans who were able to vote did so for Johnson in 1964, and never again has the margin for the Black vote in a presidential election been close. Meanwhile, Nixon’s 1968 and 1972 presidential campaigned were marked by subtle efforts to stir white racial resentment as he won over the formally Democratic white South.
“The Richard Nixon I met back in 1960,” Jackie Robinson concluded, “bore no resemblance to Richard Nixon as president.”
Now, in 2020, President Trump is outdoing Nixon. He is employing even clumsier and more virulent racial dog whistles on issues such as crime in cities and fair housing in the suburbs. And in this era of Black Lives Matter, Trump has sought to slander the movement and instill fear. His toxic racial rhetoric reminds us how far the Republican Party has moved from what Robinson and King envisioned it could be.
That the Robinson and King families have objected so strongly to Trump’s ads is not surprising. Their outrage is a stark reminder of both where things stand where things might have gone — had there been other decisions, other outreaches, and even a touch of human response.
So much changed with Richard Nixon’s silence in the case of Georgia vs. King.
Stephen and Paul Kendrick are the authors of Nine Days: The Race to Save Martin Luther King’s Life and Win the 1960 Election, to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in January 2021.
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