People were marching in the streets. The leaders were getting arrested. Police brutality was coming to a head. The country was divided over whether the protesters were heroes or criminals. Eisenhower was president.
It seems antiquated when we see how people spoke to each other then. Rancor among sides. Talk of “those criminals.” Peaceful demonstrations turned to riots. But there is something we can learn from Nixon and JFK beyond the film Selma.
It’s a little telling that Vice President Richard Nixon’s first meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in 1957, was in his Senate office, not the White House. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was avoiding King. Just a few years before, Eisenhower had a name synonymous with freedom, after leading the allies throughout WWII. But civil and racial unrest had gripped the country. Eisenhower didn’t know how to play with racial questions. In 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ordered an end to segregation in schools: “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Eisenhower handled it unbelievably poorly. He suggested that they undo generations of unequal schooling starting with—no joke—graduate schools.
But the Vice President, Richard Nixon, was the lone voice in support of a Civil Rights Bill as part of their “domestic portfolio,” a high priority that would stabilize the country through democracy.
“He had one of the most magnetic personalities that I have ever confronted.” That is Martin Luther King talking about the conservative Nixon.
Miles away, J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI began fanatically tracking King. But on June 13, 1957, Richard Nixon invited him to his Senate office for the first of several meetings. King had recently given his famous “Justice without Violence” speech: “If the Negro succumbs to the temptation of using violence in his struggle for justice, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate life of bitterness, and his chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.” Coretta Scott King was pregnant with the future Martin Luther King III.
Nixon’s notes from that afternoon survive. Negro determined to gain dignity… This is part of a world problem—quest for human dignity all over the world. They stayed for three hours. But when he left, King told reporters that it was not a substitute for a meeting with Eisenhower. It was only “a step in that direction.”
“He had one of the most magnetic personalities that I have ever confronted.” That is Martin Luther King—Martin Luther King!—talking about the conservative Nixon. “I … feel that Nixon would have done much more to meet the present crisis in race relations than President Eisenhower has done,” he told reporters.
Being in D.C. was difficult for King. As a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, he’d worked summers in Connecticut. It always unsettled him, he wrote in his autobiography, to leave the integrated North and have to switch to the segregated cars down South. They moved him to the Jim Crow cars in D.C., his own nation’s capital.
The particular genius of Richard Nixon at the time was his ability to listen. He was only Vice President, the handy punchline to many jokes about being ineffectual. But he had his eyes on the White House, and he saw that oppressed peoples were the quickest to turn toward his bigger enemy: Communism. Prophetically, King mentioned that Nixon—who would later step down for deceiving the American people—should be watched: “If Richard Nixon is not sincere, he is the most dangerous man in America.”
After the original Civil Rights Bill passed, Nixon got a letter from Jackie Robinson: “I and many others will never forget the fight you made and what you stand for.”
King’s political genius was, of course, in leading his people to a place they couldn’t legislate. It wouldn’t be over with integrated kindergartens. It wouldn’t end with voting rights or equal pay. King at his best and most applause-worthy speaks of a world above politics: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
When Nixon was photographed with King, his fellow Republicans thought it would ruin the party. Shouldn’t he appeal to conservatives in the North and South? Nixon rejected this idea. If you want to see race divide the party, become a Democrat.
After the original—but weak by today’s standards—Civil Rights Bill passed, Nixon got a letter from Jackie Robinson: “I and many others will never forget the fight you made and what you stand for.” King wrote, “I will long remember the rich fellowship which we shared together and the fruitful discussion that we had.”
But King didn’t come close to giving up there. “History has demonstrated,” he wrote, “that inadequate legislation supported by mass action can accomplish more than adequate legislation which remains unenforced for the lack of a determined mass movement.” King reminded Nixon that he still wanted an audience with the President.
Nixon replied, “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.” Although they didn’t agree on everything, Nixon and King agreed on a vision of a stronger America.
A year later, MLK met with Eisenhower. Segregation was crumbling, but desegregation not enforced. The meeting solved nothing. A stronger civil rights bill needed to pass.