Saving MLK: An Ancient Author Recounts the King’s Perilous Days | Today

By John DiConsiglio

In October 1960, 31-year-old Martin Luther King Jr., yet to be the civil rights icon who would inspire a nation, agreed to join a student sit-in at an Atlanta department store. King, who had never spent a night in jail before, knew he risked arrest. But the reality was even more poignant. As students were taken to local jails, King was transferred to a dangerous Georgia state prison where black inmates faced violence from white guards.

Just weeks before the presidential election, King’s ordeal was the ultimate “October surprise” for the two candidates, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. In a very close contest, in which black voters seemed poised to decide the outcome, the two campaigns debated how to respond – with King’s life hanging in the balance.

The little-known historical drama showcases student activism, political maneuvering, and moral courage while paralleling modern events. And it’s a story that Paul Kendrick, BA ’05, MPA ’07, was apparently born to tell. A writer, lecturer and political leader who served in the Obama White House, Kendrick chronicled the episode in his book “Nine Days: The Race to Save Martin Luther King’s Life and Win the 1960 Election” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux , 2021), co-written with his father Stephen.

“It’s a story that reminds us of how government, politics and elections can create something good,” Kendrick said. “It shows that we can help America live up to its ideals if we work across our differences.”

Uniting people has been a lifelong theme for Kendrick, both in his career and at George Washington University. While a student of American Studies, he helped found the George Washington Williams House of African American History and Culture, a student center for the promotion of African American history, culture, and unity. He received the university’s Martin Luther King Award for community service and served as a presidential administrative member.

Paul KendrickB.A. ’05, MPA ’07, author of Nine Days: The Race to Save Martin Luther King’s Life and Win the 1960 Election.

In addition to working for the Obama White House, Kendrick has led numerous grassroots campaigns and movements to promote leadership and education. He is currently the executive director of Rust Belt Rising, a nonprofit that trains political leaders in the Midwest to connect with working families. “Nine Days,” which has been featured in the New York Times Book Review and Oprah Magazine and has been recommended by President Obama, is her third book with her father. All three tell stories of interracial collaborations that changed the course of history.

“I’ve always been passionate about promoting equality, fairness, and opportunity in America,” Kendrick said. “For me, part of writing history is finding stories that challenge us to see our own times in ways that can boldly affect change.”

An origin story

In a sense, “Nine Days” is an “origin story,” Kendrick said, of a young king laying out his civil rights strategy. After the success of his Montgomery bus boycott, King was persuaded by student activists in Atlanta to join their sit-in and propel civil rights to the forefront of the 1960 campaign. at Reidsville State Prison, on the pretext of a minor ticket, the candidates were forced to speak out.

At the time, the black vote seemed equally divided, Kendrick said. Many were skeptical of Kennedy, a wealthy white senator from Massachusetts who had virtually no positive civil rights record. Indeed, King considered Nixon a friend. His own father supported him, along with prominent black voices, including Jackie Robinson.

But a team of Kennedy advisers took quick action. Pioneering black journalist Louis Martin, future Pennsylvania senator Harris Wofford and Peace Corps founder Sargent Shriver urged the candidate to respond quickly and decisively. Kennedy called Coretta Scott King to express her sympathy and instructed her brother Robert Kennedy to contact the Georgian judge. During this time, the three advisers distributed millions of pamphlets publicizing Kennedy’s role in freeing King. Nixon, eyeing white Southern Democratic votes, remained silent.

In the historically close election, Democrats won a 7 percentage point change in the black vote from the previous presidential race. No less than nine states were decided by black voters, sealing a coalition that remains today. “That was a pivotal point in giving us the policy we have today,” Kendrick said.

For “Nine Days,” Kendrick relied on extensive archival research, newly unearthed documents, and interviews with many of the drama’s key players. Kendrick first met Wofford while studying at GW. He struck up a friendship with the former senator that lasted until his death in 2019, even accompanying him to the King Memorial.

For Kendrick, the 1960 story has echoes for today’s political landscape. He compared Kennedy’s outreach to Coretta Scott King with President Joe Biden‘s phone call to Jacob Blake’s family after his shooting in Kenosha, Wis.

Likewise, he points to similarities between Atlanta students and Black Lives Matter activists. Kendrick interviewed many veterans of the Atlanta student movement for the book and considers them the unsung heroes of civil rights history. “Back then – and now – there’s a lot of focus on politicians. But at the end of the day, we also have to think about the work that is being done at the local level,” he said. “There are young activists like GW students who are still forcing our country to fight injustices and get politicians to take a stand against them.”

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