Days before the 1960 election, Coretta Scott King received a call from then-candidate John F. Kennedy while her husband was in a Georgia jail, charged with trespassing after leading a sit-in demonstration against segregation in Atlanta. “This must be pretty hard on you, and I want to let you both know that I’m thinking about you and will do all I can to help,” Kennedy told her. The Democratic nominee’s brother and campaign manager, Robert Kennedy, called a DeKalb County Judge and successfully lobbied for Martin Luther King Jr.’s release.
The personal call and the timely intervention significantly bolstered Kennedy’s standing among black voters. They also strengthened the political alliance between the Democratic Party and African Americans. After his release, King praised Kennedy for exhibiting “moral courage of a high order.” His father, the influential Baptist pastor Martin Luther King Sr., said, “Kennedy can be my president, Catholic or whatever he is. I’ve got all my votes and I’ve got a suitcase and I’m going to take them up there and dump them in his lap.” Kennedy earned 68 percent of the black vote, which was the decisive factor in key states like Illinois, Michigan, and South Carolina.
Once in the White House, Kennedy faced pressure from civil-rights activists to make good on what King called a “huge promissory note” to pass meaningful civil-rights legislation. When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he cemented a political alliance between African Americans and the Democratic Party that continues to this day. But celebrating these landmark pieces of legislation makes it easy to overlook what black people in the United States lost when civil rights and equality for blacks were hitched to the Democratic Party.
While the passage of the Civil Rights Act helped Johnson earn support from 94 percent of black voters in 1964, there is a gulf between what black Americans hoped the legislation would achieve and what Democratic politicians actually delivered. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 helped end apartheid conditions in the South, a critical objective for which grassroots black Southern activists fought and died, the legislation did little to address the structures of racism that shaped black lives in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. This was an intentional consequence of how the bill’s sponsors, largely liberals from the North, Midwest, and West, crafted the legislation.
As King understood, Democratic politicians acted more boldly on race issues in Alabama and Mississippi than in New York and Massachusetts. “There is a pressing need for a liberalism in the North which is truly liberal, a liberalism that firmly believes in integration in its own community as well as in the Deep South,” King told the New York Urban League in September 1960. As the Urban League’s executive director Whitney Young put it a few years later, “liberalism seems to be related to the distance people are from the problem.”
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