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Mon Jan 21, 2013, 09:35 AM

When Martin Luther King Jr. and Richard Nixon Were Friends

Jan 21, 2013 4:45 AM EST

Martin Luther King Jr. and Richard Nixon had one of the most unlikely political friendships, but it came apart over an arrest with serious consequences for Nixon’s legacy and civil rights.

I’ve had a hard time coming to terms with RN, as Richard Nixon liked to refer to himself in his more imperial moods. It may sound odd, but the more I immersed myself in his pre-presidential life in the course of writing a book (in other words, before Watergate, Vietnam, and China), the more annoyed I became with him. Sometimes I had an urge to scold him—to tell him to do what he surely knew was right rather than go for the quick political advantage. This urge was never stronger than when it involved his relationship with Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday (he would have been 84 on Feb. 15) is commemorated this month as a federal holiday—the same month as Nixon’s centennial was marked. There once was a real connection between the two men, but it more or less ended with RN’s spineless behavior during the 1960 presidential campaign, after Dr. King was arrested on phony charges stemming from a traffic violation. Coretta Scott King had been terrified; she worried with good reason that her husband might be killed en route to Georgia State Prison in Reidsville, and she appealed to the Nixon and John F. Kennedy campaigns to intervene.

Nixon, however, demurred; he said that it would be “grandstanding” to speak out, according to his aide William Safire. Nixon’s real motive, though, seems clear: it was a close election and he was willing to lose black support if it meant gaining a new harvest of white votes in the once-Democratic south. Eight years later, this approach became the carefully considered “Southern strategy.”

What was most bothersome wasn’t simply that Nixon knew better, although he certainly did. It was rather that he’d rejected a kind of friendship with Dr. King and turned away from his own civil-rights record, which was excellent and far more genuine than President Eisenhower’s. King, when he was 28 and famous for his role in the Montgomery bus boycott,met Nixon in March 1957, in Africa, when Ghana celebrated its independence. They agreed to stay in touch and met three months later in Nixon’s office at the Capitol to discuss among other topics the 1957 Civil Rights Bill. That summer Nixon worked to strengthen the bill, taking on such powerful Southern Democrats as Richard Russell, who opposed it, and the Senate Majority Leader, Lyndon Johnson, who had been pushing for a weaker version of the voting-rights section.

“I will long remember the rich fellowship which we shared together and the fruitful discussion that we had,” Dr. King later wrote to the vice president, telling him “how deeply grateful all people of goodwill are to you for your assiduous labor and dauntless courage in seeking to make the Civil Rights Bill a reality… This is certainly an expression of your devotion to the highest mandates of the moral law.” Nixon replied in much the same spirit: “I am sure you know how much I appreciate your generous comments. My only regret is that I have been unable to do more than I have. Progress is understandably slow in this field, but we at least can be sure that we are moving steadily and surely ahead.” They talked frequently after that, and in September 1958, after a deranged black woman in Harlem stabbed Dr. King almost fatally, Nixon was among the first to write to him. He praised King’s “Christian spirit of tolerance,” which he said would ultimately win over “the great majority of American for the cause of equality and human dignity to which we are committed.”



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Reply When Martin Luther King Jr. and Richard Nixon Were Friends (Original post)
DonViejo Jan 2013 OP
Peace_Sells Jan 2013 #1

Response to DonViejo (Original post)

Tue Jan 22, 2013, 02:30 AM

1. A very interesting article.

It is interesting to think what would have happened if Nixon won in 1960. Would he have been assassinated? Would it instead be Kennedy who comes back in 1968 and win election? Would we have ever went to the moon?

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