'Growing Up King,' By Dexter King

Phone lines buzzed. My father's friends — like Stanley Levison, Harry Belafonte, Mahalia Jackson, Jackie Robinson, and a horde of less famous but equally concerned folk whose common denominator was being American and feeling for my father — they all made calls or had aides-de-camp making calls to see what could be done for Dad. Of these, Harris Wofford was best positioned to effect change, being connected to the 1960 Kennedy presidential campaign. He spoke to Sargent Shriver of JFK's staff. Shriver balked — the first law of political campaigns is to say anything but do nothing. In the end, Wofford convinced Shriver at least to run it by Senator Kennedy, presidential candidate, that maybe he should call the wife of Martin Luther King and offer her comfort. The woman was pregnant, alone. There was all sorts of palavering first. But, cutting through all the political intrigue, JFK wound up calling Mother on impulse, against advice and all political logic, not because it might get him votes. In that climate, it might easily have cost him votes; his advisers were not shy about pointing it out. But JFK called my mother anyway, because Harris Wofford had the right phone number to give Sargent Shriver; it flashed in JFK's mind that calling Mother was the decent thing to do. I believe that was his motivation, and also why things turned out well for him in the election. You get back what you put out. My mother was at home, preparing to go see Morris Abram, a Jewish lawyer who was a family friend. At this point, Robert F. Kennedy, head of JFK's presidential campaign, probably wouldn't have had JFK call Mother for all the tea in China.

The phone rang anyway. My mother spoke with Senator Kennedy; he said he knew it must be hard, he knew she was expecting; if there was anything he could do feel free to call. Mother said she'd appreciate anything he could do to get my father out of prison. Meanwhile, Bobby, JFK's campaign manager and soon to be attorney general, called Judge Mitchell to see why my father couldn't get bail on a misdemeanor. What the hell was going on? Bobby wanted to know.

Who knows what went through Judge Mitchell's mind, but Daddy was released, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) chartered a plane to bring him home from Reidsville. My Grandaddy King said at a mass meeting after my father was released that if he had a suitcase full of votes, he'd take them and put them at Senator Kennedy's feet in the election just a week away. We can thank a cop harassing my father and Judge Mitchell as much as the Kennedys: the long and short of it was that JFK's political intervention on my father's behalf during the final days of his campaign was a decisive factor in his election as president of the United States in 1960. Senator Kennedy won by the equivalent of one vote per precinct nationwide, and his campaign wisely made what hay it could in "Negro" precincts.

After the election, the Kings were seen as an influential family, even a royal family, in the well-lit backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, except our imperial conditioning was different. Where the Kennedys or the British royals were given latitude and a very long leash, the Kings were seen as these pious moral exemplar — a difficult posture for human beings to maintain.

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