Chapter 15: Atlanta Arrest and Presidential Politics
I fear that there is a dearth of vision
in our government, a lack of a sense of history and genuine morality.
first contact with John Kennedy was when he was a senator seeking
the nomination for President. For several months, we had tried to
work out a meeting and every time I could go he was away. Finally
we worked out an engagement at his apartment in New York. That was
June of 1960, about a month before the convention.
We talked for about an
hour over the breakfast table. I was very frank about what I thought:
that there was a need for a strong executive leadership and that
we hadn't gotten this during the Eisenhower administration. If we
didn't get it in the new administration, we would be set back even
more. I was very impressed by the forthright and honest manner in
which he discussed the civil rights question, and with his concern
and his willingness to learn more about civil rights.
I specifically mentioned
a need for an executive order outlawing discrimination in federally
assisted housing. I also mentioned to him the need for strong civil
rights legislation, and I stressed voting issues because we were
deeply involved at that time in voter registration drives and had
encountered a number of difficulties in states like Alabama and
As I recall, he agreed
with all of these things. He agreed that there was a need for strong
executive leadership and that this had not existed, and he felt
if he received the nomination and was elected he could give this
kind of leadership. He assured me also that he felt the whole question
of the right to vote was a key and basic, and that this would be
one of the immediate things that he would look into. He said that
he had voted consistently for civil rights. I raised the question
with him about 1957, when he voted against what we considered as
a very important section of the civil rights bill. He said that
since that time, if he had to face the issue again, he would reverse
his position because many of the developments during the sitin movement
had pointed up the injustices and indignities that Negroes were
facing all over the South, and for this reason he had reevaluated
many of these things.
John Kennedy did not have
the grasp and the comprehension of the depths of the problem at
that time, as he later did. He knew that segregation was morally
wrong and he certainly intellectually committed
himself to integration, but I could see that he didn't have the
emotional involvement then. He had not really been involved enough
in and with the problem. He didn't know too many Negroes personally.
He had never really had the personal experience of knowing the deep
groans and passionate yearnings of the Negro for freedom, because
he just didn't know Negroes generally and he hadn't had any experience
in the civil rights struggle. So I felt that it was an intellectual
A few months later, after he had been nominated, I talked with him over at his house in Georgetown, and in that short period he had really learned a great deal about civil rights and had been advised rather well. I'd had little enthusiasm when he first announced his candidacy, but I had no doubt that he would do the right thing on the civil rights issue, if he were elected President.
He was very much concerned
then about the election and possibly losing. Some of his friends
were concerned about this and felt he had to do something dramatic
to convince the nation of his commitment to civil rights. Some of
the advisors thought that he should come South and make a civil
rights speech right here in the South which would really convince
people. They wanted him to come under my auspices to speak for a
board meeting or a dinner sponsored by SCLC. I told him I just couldn't
do that unless Mr. Nixon came, because we were a nonpartisan organization.
I said, "Now Nixon may not come but I would have to invite him."
But they felt, naturally, that it wouldn't work that way. So I kind
of backed out on that idea because I thought it would be a mistake.
For many months during the election campaign, my close friends urged me to declare my support for John Kennedy. I spent many troubled hours searching for the responsible and fair decision. I was impressed by his qualities, by many elements in his record, and by his program. I had learned to enjoy and respect his charm and his incisive mind. But I made very clear to him that I did not endorse candidates publicly and that I could not come to the point that I would change my views on this.
Nevertheless, I was grateful to Senator Kennedy for the genuine concern he expressed about my arrest in October 1960 because of my participation in nonviolent efforts to integrate lunch counters in Atlanta, Georgia. I took part in the lunch counter sit-ins at Rich's department store as a follower, not a leader. I did not initiate the thing. It came into being with the students discussing the issues involved. They called me and asked me to join in. They wanted me to he in it. and I felt a moral obligation to be in it with them.
I was arrested along with
some two hundred eighty students in a sit-in demonstration seeking
to integrate lunch counters. I said when I went in Fulton County
Jail that I could not in all good conscience post bail and that
I would stay and serve the time if it was one year, five, or ten
years. Of course the students agreed to stay also.
If, by chance, Your
Honor, we are guilty of violating the law, please be assured that
we did it to bring the whole issue of racial injustice under the
scrutiny of the conscience of Atlanta. I must honestly say that
we firmly believe that segregation is evil, and that our Southland
will never reach its full potential and moral maturity until this
cancerous disease is removed. We do not seek to remove this unjust
system for ourselves alone but for our white brothers as well. The
festering sore of segregation debilitates the white man as well
as the Negro. So, if our actions in any way served to bring this
issue to the forefront of the conscience of the community, they
were not undertaken in vain.
And, sir, I know you
have a legal obligation facing you at this hour. This judicial obligation
may cause you to hand us over to another court rather than dismiss
the charges. But, sir, I must say that I have a moral obligation
facing me at this hour. This imperative drives me to say that if
you find it necessary to set a bond, 1 cannot in all good conscience
have anyone go buy my bail. 1 will choose jail rather than bail,
even if it means remaining in jail a year or even ten years. Maybe
it will take this type of self-suffering on the part of numerous
Negroes to finally expose the moral defense of our white brothers
who happen to he misguided and thusly awaken the dozing conscience
of our community.
When they came to see after
five or six days that we were not coming out and that the community
was getting very much concerned, the merchants dropped the charges,
which meant that everybody was released without bail immediately.
But when I was released, they served me with papers stating that
I had violated my probation and that
I would be transferred to DeKalb jail and go on trial in the court
On the night of May 4, 1960, police stopped me in DeKalb County and discovered I still had an Alabama driver's license. Because of this, they gave me a ticket. I had gone to court, and I didn't even know it at the time but the lawyer pleaded guilty for me and they had fined me something like $25 or $50 and placed me on probation for I guess six months. I didn't even pay attention to the case, it was such a minor case; I didn't pay attention to it and never knew that the lawyer had really pleaded guilty. He had just told me, "I've got everything worked out." He made me think it was clear and all I needed to do was pay. Actually they later admitted in court that they had never fined or arrested anybody on a charge like that, and they really had nothing on the statute to reveal how long you had to be in Atlanta before changing your license. So it was obviously a case of persecution.
I sat in the
back of the courtroom while Mr. Charles M. Clayton, a Negro attorney
who represented me, talked with the judge. We had this big trial
and I had my lawyers arguing the case brilliantly and after all
of that the judge said six months of hard labor, and this was not
So they took me back upstairs
and put me in jail in the DeKalb County Jail. Then early in the
morning, about three o'clock in the morning, they came and got me
and took me to Reidsville. That was the state prison some two hundred
and twenty miles from Atlanta. On the way, they dealt with me just
like I was some hardened criminal. They had me chained all the way
down to my legs, and they tied my legs to something in the floor
so there would be no way for me to escape.
They talked with themselves. It was a long ride. I didn't know where they were taking me; but finally I assumed it must be to one of the state prisons after we had been gone so long. That kind of mental anguish is worse than dying, riding for mile after mile, hungry and thirsty, bound and helpless, waiting and not knowing what you're waiting for. And all over a traffic violation.
When people found out that
they had taken me out in the wee hours of the morning and transferred
me, there was real resentment all over. I think people had already
started talking to both Nixon and Kennedy about doing something
even when we were still in the Fulton County Jail-saying to them
that they should make a statement about it. After they transferred
me to Reidsville-in a segregated cell-block, a place where inmates
who had attacked guards, psychotics, and other special cases were
housed-Harris Wofford and others strongly urged Mr. Kennedy to try
to use his influence to do something about it, and he finally agreed.
The first thing he did
was call my wife. She was pregnant, and this was kind of a rough
experience for her, so he called her and expressed
his concern. He said that he would do whatever he could and that
he would think this over with his brother and try to use his influence
to get me released.
In the meantime, Robert
Kennedy called the judge to find out about the bond. I understand
Robert Kennedy was really angry about it, when they got it over
to him and let him know all of the facts in the situation. In that
spirit of anger, he called the judge. I don't know what he said
in that conversation with the judge, but it was later revealed his
main point was "Why can't he be bonded out?" I was released the
next day. It was about two weeks before the election.
Senator Kennedy had served
as a great force in making my release from Reidsville Prison possible.
I was personally obligated to him and his brother for their intervention
during my imprisonment. He did it because of his great concern and
his humanitarian bent. I would like to feel that he made the call
because he was concerned. He had come to know me as a person then.
He had been in the debates and had done a good job when he talked
about civil rights and what the Negro faces. Harris and others had
really been talking with him about it. At the same time, I think
he naturally had political considerations in mind. He was running
for an office, and he needed to be elected, and I'm sure he felt
the need for the Negro votes. So I think that he did something that
expressed deep moral concern, but at the same time it was politically
sound. It did take a little courage to do this; he didn't know it
was politically sound.
I always felt that Nixon lost a real opportunity to express support of something much larger than an individual, because this expressed support for the movement for civil rights. It indicated the direction that this man would take, if he became president.
And I had known Nixon longer. He had been supposedly close to me, and he would call me frequently about things, seeking my advice. And yet, when this moment came, it was like he had never heard of me. So this is why I really considered him a moral coward and one who was really unwilling to take a courageous step and take a risk. And I am convinced that he lost the election because of that. Many Negroes were still on the fence, still undecided, and they were leaning toward Nixon.
My father had endorsed Nixon
until that call. He knew about my relations with Nixon, and I think
he felt that Nixon would do a good job on the civil rights question.
I guess deep down within there may have been a little of the religious
feeling that a Catholic should not be president. I'm sure my father
had been somewhat influenced by this, so that he had gone on record
endorsing Nixon. After that call, he changed, and he made a very
I was grateful to Senator
Kennedy for the genuine concern he
expressed in my arrest. After the call I
made a statement to the press thanking
him but not endorsing him. Very frankly, I did not feel at that
time that there was much difference between Kennedy and Nixon. I
could find some things in the background of both men that I didn't
particularly agree with. Remembering what Nixon had done out in
California to Helen Gahegen Douglas, I felt that he was an opportunist
at many times who had no real grounding in basic convictions, and
his voting record was not good. He improved when he became vice
president, but, when he was a congressman and a senator, he didn't
have a good voting record.
With Mr. Kennedy, after
I looked over his voting record, I felt at points that he was so
concerned about being president of the United States that he would
compromise basic principles to become president. But I had to look
at something else beyond the man-the people who surrounded him-and
I felt that Kennedy was surrounded by better people. It was on that
basis that I felt that Kennedy would make the best president.
I never came out with an
endorsement. My father did, but I never made one. I took this position
in order to maintain a nonpartisan posture, which I have followed
all along in order to be able to look objectively at both parties
at all times. As I said to him all along, I couldn't, and I never
changed that even after he made the call during my arrest. I made
a statement of thanks, and I expressed my gratitude for the call,
but in the statement I made it clear that I did not endorse any
candidate and that this was not to be interpreted as an endorsement.
I had to conclude that the then known facts about Kennedy were not adequate to make an unqualified judgment in his favor. I do feel that, as any man, he grew a great deal. After he became president I thought we really saw two Kennedys-a Kennedy the first two years and another Kennedy emerging in 1963. He was getting ready to throw off political considerations and see the real moral issues. Had President Kennedy lived, I would probably have endorsed him in 1964. But, back at that time, I concluded that there was something to be desired in both candidates.
The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.