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Levingston Revisits Kennedy and King (BOOK REVIEW)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) July 19, 2017: In a paranoid op-ed commentary titled "Donald Trump and John F. Kennedy are more similar than you think" at the Boston Globe (dated July 17, 2017), the conservative polemicist Niall Ferguson calls attention to certain revelations about President John F. Kennedy's life that came to public attention in the years after his tragic assassination on November 22, 1963. No doubt those revelations about JFK sexual history and his health history contributed to modifying how the news media cover prospective presidential candidates. But Ferguson evidently has not yet figured this out.

Moreover, in his zeal to malign Kennedy, Ferguson does not even mention his role in the black civil rights struggle.

But in the new book Kennedy and King: The President, the Pastor, and the Battle Over Civil Rights (Hachette Books, 2017), Steven Levingston, the non-fiction book editor at the Washington Post, details the complicated relationship between John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK; born on May 29, 1917, and assassinated on November 22, 1963, at the age of 46) and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK; born on Jan. 15, 1929; assassinated on Apr. 4, 1968, at the age of 39).

Levingston is not uncritical of JFK, who was a womanizer who did not publicly acknowledge his own serious health problems. But Levingston nevertheless portrays JFK perceptively.

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Now, the black civil rights movement emerged into greater national prominence in the 1950s and 1960s under the leadership of the charismatic young MLK. Like his father, Dr. King was a Baptist preacher. MLK was also a follower of Gandhi's non-violent protest. No doubt the oratory of MLK and his father and other black preachers involved in the black civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s stood in the American Protestant tradition that Sacvan Bercovitch discusses in his book The American Jeremiad, 2nd ed. (2012).

Like his father and his older brother, JFK attended Harvard. Then in World War II (1939-1945), he fought in the Navy and became a war hero. In his 1956 book Profiles in Courage, the young senator from Massachusetts revealed that he also admired political and moral courage. But would he himself ever muster enough political and moral courage to become a profile in courage? Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) famously quipped that he was all profile and no courage. Despite being a war hero, he really had done nothing that manifested political and moral courage to any notable degree.

But in the 1960 presidential election, with the help of his father's money, the charismatic Senator Kennedy narrowly defeated Vice President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994), thereby becoming the first Roman Catholic president in the country's history. In his inaugural address, President Kennedy called on his fellow Americans not to ask what their country could do for them, but what they could do for their country. No doubt black civil rights activists of the 1950s and 1960s found this call encouraging.

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JFK appointed as Attorney General his younger brother Robert F. Kennedy (RFK; born on Nov. 20, 1925; assassinated on June 6, 1968, at the age of 42). Early on, young President Kennedy suffered through the embarrassing fiasco known as the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba in April 1961. Later, the two young Kennedy brothers suffered through the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962.

But the 1950s and 1960s were the dawning of the Age of Television. Television news reports brought events of the day into American living-rooms with a far greater sense of immediacy than print news reports did. Of course, at an earlier time, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) had communicated with Americans in their living-rooms through his radio broadcasts known as fireside chats. But the television news reports brought into American living-rooms included not only of the Cuban missile crisis and of black civil rights protests and demonstrations, but also eventually of the tragic assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK.

Now, when MLK was jailed on trumped-up charges in 1960, candidate Nixon maintained silence, but JFK and RFK and others involved in the Kennedy campaign intervened quietly in MLK's behalf, thereby winning the endorsement of MLK's father, known as Daddy King, for JFK. No doubt black voters across the country turned out for JFK in the election, thereby giving him a decisive electoral victory: 303 for Kennedy, 219 for Nixon (page 101).

Because blacks remembered President Abraham Lincoln (born on Feb. 12, 1809; assassinated on Apr. 15, 1865) as the Great Emancipator, some blacks had tended to vote Republican. Thus the 1960 presidential election marked a historic realignment of certain black voters. President Lincoln issued his famous Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Dr. King repeatedly urged President Kennedy to issue a Second Emancipation Proclamation to advance black civil rights (pages 202, 266 and 309).

Now, as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, young Dr. King helped organize the black boycott of the segregated busses in 1955 and 1956 that had been sparked by Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger (page 42). Ultimately the boycott was successful. MLK published his 1957 book Stride Toward Freedom about the boycott. Then he devoted an enormous amount of time and effort preaching and lecturing around the country about non-violent demonstrations. Even though Levingston is aware of MLK's speaking engagements, he skips over them in favor of discussing more dramatic actions of the Freedom Rides organized by certain other black leaders.

But MLK returned to active duty in Albany, Georgia (pages 229-256). Then he moved on to Birmingham, Alabama, from which he wrote his famous 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail (pages 301-392).

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Arguably President Kennedy was better prepared to deal with international and economic crises than he was to deal with white segregationists and black civil rights demonstrators. In the civil rights crisis, was he going to live up to Eleanor Roosevelt's characterization of him as all profile and no courage? Or would he somehow manage to muster a measure of political and moral courage to help advance black civil rights? In the end, after the June 3, 1963, federal showdown with Governor George Wallace (1919-1998) over the integration of the University of Alabama, President Kennedy did at long last somehow summoned enough political and moral courage to publicly help advance black civil rights on national television (pages 393-408). But was it too little, too late? Arguably, it was, but better late than never, eh?

On August 28, 1963, at the massive civil rights March on Washington, twenty-three-year-old student activist John Lewis (born in 1940) claimed that President Kennedy's proposed civil rights legislation was "'too little and too late'" (quoted on page 422). Incidentally, Levingston refers to now Congressman Lewis of Georgia repeatedly throughout the book (pages x, 150, 153-154, 157, 159, 164, 165, 171, 173, 175, 182, 188, 345, 403, 406, 411, 421, 424, and 426-427). But Levingston does not refer at all to the Reverend Jesse Jackson (born in 1941).

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)
 

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