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.

 

King leading the Selma-to-Montgomery march (Photo: history.com)

 

The presidential hopeful

By 1960, the equally charismatic John F. Kennedy Jr. was up against Nixon for the Presidency. Southerners didn’t trust Kennedy. The evangelist Billy Graham had just returned from a convention in Rio with MLK and heard that King might support JFK: “King was greatly impressed and just about sold. I think if you could invite him for a brief conference it might swing him.”

This is where influence gets involved. MLK was arrested for violating probation. (What? Yes. He’d gotten a ticket for “driving without a license.”) He was put in chains in the back of a paddy wagon. Coretta Scott King appealed to both Nixon and the Kennedys. Coretta was worried he might be killed or disappear in Georgia like other demonstrators had.

At the time, both Nixon and Kennedy had a lot to lose in the Southern vote. Among black voters they were equally split. MLK leaned toward JFK, Jackie Robinson toward Nixon.

But the Kennedys went into high gear. JFK telephoned Coretta. JFK’s brother Robert telephoned the governor of Georgia, which freed MLK.

Nixon? There are rumors that he tried. Still the Vice President, Nixon had more clout in the White House on the matter than the influential Kennedy and his brother. But Nixon wanted to avoid using the matter for political grandstanding.

Soon after, the Kennedys printed up two million pamphlets titled ‘No Comment’ Nixon Versus a Candidate with a Heart, Senator Kennedy. This is where we lose the young idealist Nixon.

Now for the really weird part: With the election all but over, the California-born Nixon went home to vote on Election Day. When he suggested that he and his campaign aides get a drink, they reminded Nixon that the bars were closed. For Election Day. So they—no joke—took an all-day road trip to Tijuana. Nixon wanted margaritas and Mexican food.

This is the day when a Republican who turned his back on black leadership turned to Mexican labor. And it cost him the election. Nixon and his aides came back to the States that night to watch him lose to Kennedy.

Years later, in combing through the post-mortem of loss, it was discovered that the Justice Department had looked into how to free MLK, but sat on it. They also found a very rousing statement drafted for Eisenhower in support of MLK, condemning the Georgia incident.

“I always felt that Nixon lost a real opportunity to express … support of something much larger than an individual,” King later said. “He would call me frequently about things, getting, seeking my advice. And yet, when this moment came it was like he had never heard of me, you see. So this is why I considered him a moral coward.”

Three years later, Nixon and MLK bumped into each other at the funeral of John F. Kennedy. Nixon and JFK started in the Senate the same year. They’d been opponents, but also friends and colleagues. There is no record of King and Nixon speaking in the intervening years.

The Vice President who brought us into an era of civil rights turned out to be Lyndon Johnson, who took over for Kennedy. This is roughly where the movie Selma begins. After King’s 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act that both Nixon and King wanted.

Nixon in a sea of mourners on his way to King’s funeral in Atlanta (Photo: Bettmann/Corbis/AP Images) 

 

The presidential candidate

Nixon ran again for President in 1968. For a while, he looked like he would oppose Johnson. But Johnson stepped out of the race. Four days after his announcement, Martin Luther King was shot and killed.

Street demonstrations and violence followed. Nixon, a viable candidate, wondered if he should go to the funeral of his old friend King. He worried that this close to election time it might seem like “grandstanding.”  A friend reminded him that he’d used that word in 1960, when it cost him the election.

But what should Nixon do? Make phone calls? Send flowers? Instead, he suspended his campaign and flew to Atlanta two days early to visit with the King family. First, he went to see Coretta. Then he met with MLK’s parents in Collier Heights, a prosperous Atlanta neighborhood. There was no press coverage. He left without taking photos.

But then he returned to Atlanta two days later for the funeral.* He sat in Ebenezer Baptist Church. But he didn’t join the three-and-a-half-mile march to Morehouse College, where Dr. King first discovered on a summer trip that the world and even his own country could be a better place.

For any candidate to join that march, Nixon decided, would have been grandstanding.

What do we learn from Nixon? What can our political establishment learn from the bloodshed and actions in recent months? Can you be conservative about an event and still progressive about the future? We learned a few things from Nixon and MLK. We learn quite a bit about time. Namely:

  1. Listening to opposing factions is different than joining the march. There are incidences, there are people and there is government.

  2. Inaction is action. Deciding not to get involved with King in the White House was Eisenhower’s decision. Meeting with King was Nixon’s. Intervening after King’s arrest in Georgia was a different kind of decision for Nixon than for Kennedy.

  3. No one should wait for a former friend’s funeral to say or feel sorry.

 

*I’m debating the asterisk, but the funeral for Martin Luther King Jr will continue to be one of the most surreal events in history. Notable attendees, alphabetically: Harry Belafonte, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Cosby, Bobby, Jackie and Ted Kennedy, Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney—Mitt’s father.

 

If you want too much information on the subject check out Ike and Duck: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage and the annotated letters to Nixon available in the King Papers Project.

 

Top photo: Henry Griffin/AP