Interview with Harris Wofford


Harris Wofford:

Take yourself back to the last weeks of the 1960 campaign, ah, October 1960. There's Martin Luther King sitting in a county…county jail with a sentence of six months on a hard labor game, and absurd shocking sentence. And… and Kennedy wanted to do something to say something, but he had promised the Governor of Georgia he wouldn't issue a public statement because the Governor was going to find a way to get King out of jail. But he couldn't say that. And the country was waiting. And… and so finally they… we some of us had the idea that Kennedy might just call Mrs. King and express his sympathy and tell her what he was doing to get King out of jail.** And… and um, we got this idea to him through Sargeant Shriver who waited until O… O'Bryan O'Donnell, Sorenson, Salinger went and did other things, to the press, to work on a speech, into the bathroom. Finally, Kennedy was there all by himself. And Shriver said to him, "Look, you've been trying to figure out what to do about Martin King. Mrs. King is pregnant, she's worried, she's anxious. Why don't you just call her on the phone and express your sympathy." And Kennedy looked up and said, "That's a wonderful idea," big grin on his face. "Do you have her number?" Shriver had her number, dialed her. The President talked to her. Then later in the morning he started telling his strategists because Shriver knew that it if it had ever been brought up when all the other people were in the room, there'd be a strategy discussion, and it would never happen. There'd be too many arguments against it. He told them, by the way, this morning I called Mrs. Martin Luther King. And Robert Kennedy's first reaction was, you've lost the election. We had three southern governors tell us that if you support Krushev Castro or Martin Luther King, we're going to throw our votes to Nixon. And… and Robert Kennedy called my black colleague in the civil rights movements, Louis Martin and me in, and he gave us hell. He said, close down your civil rights section. You… you've shot your bolt. You've probably lost the election. And I've never been… I've never been chewed out by anybody, ah, as angrily as I was by Robert Kennedy. And then that very night Robert Kennedy called the judge in Georgia, and called him to get that judge to get King out of jail. And… and we asked, Bob Kennedy, you know, after you were so angry why did you do that? And he said, well, as I went up to New York on the plane and thought about it, and King in jail with that sentence, and screwing up our politics in this country and maybe losing the election for my, you know, for my brother-in-law… my brother, I got so mad that I got that judge on the phone. And I… I said, I… you know, it's partly I think Bob Kennedy was a man of action too, and he wanted to get into action. Or partly because he felt that once the issue had been drawn that way you might as well go all the way and do it well. And… and of course this… in those last weeks of the campaign had an enormous impact on black voters and lots of other people. For a time people were… were… right up til election night worried that there were more white people who had been ah, turned away from Kennedy by it than black people who were drawn to him. But it didn't turn out that way as far as anybody can tell. The ah, enormous turnout of black votes in critical states were… were said to have been the margin of victory in, I think six states. And there's no sign that he lost any state… state because of… of a backlash ah, as to what he did with King.