Kennedy and King

The President, the Pastor, and the Battle over Civil Rights


By Steven Levingston

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A New York Times Editors’ Choice Pick

Kennedy and King is an unqualified masterpiece of historical narrative . . . A landmark achievement.” — Douglas Brinkley, New York Times bestselling author of Rosa Parks

Kennedy and King traces the emergence of two of the twentieth century’s greatest leaders, their powerful impact on each other and on the shape of the civil rights battle between 1960 and 1963. These two men from starkly different worlds profoundly influenced each other’s personal development. Kennedy’s hesitation on civil rights spurred King to greater acts of courage, and King inspired Kennedy to finally make a moral commitment to equality. As America still grapples with the legacy of slavery and the persistence of discrimination, Kennedy and King is a vital, vivid contribution to the literature of the Civil Rights Movement.



ON TUESDAY EVENING, June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy settled in behind his Oval Office desk, a pillow supporting his ailing back. Floodlights blazed, thick cables snaked across the floor, a bulky television camera stared at him. In minutes he was going live. Just three hours earlier, he had decided to speak to the nation. His speech had been hurriedly cobbled together, and was somewhat incomplete. But he knew what he wanted to say and, if necessary, he'd ad lib it. Looking down at his text, the president scratched out a few words and wrote in his own. Setting down his pen, he was ready. Although he was not fully conscious of it, President Kennedy had been building up to this moment for two and a half years. A technician called out a thirty-second warning.

America was at a crossroads on civil rights. Protesters opposed to segregation—some as young as six—had lately poured into the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, and were bullied by snarling police dogs and blasted off their feet by fire department water cannons. Demonstrations sprang up across the nation in solidarity. Earlier in the day, in Tuscaloosa, Governor George Wallace stood theatrically in the schoolhouse door to block the admission of two black students to the University of Alabama.

Just before 8 p.m., as the president put the finishing touches on his speech, Martin Luther King Jr. took a seat in front of his television in Atlanta, Georgia, joining millions of Americans coast to coast. Since Kennedy's razor-thin victory in 1960, King had implored the president to commit fully to the cause of racial equality. In telegrams and phone calls to the White House, in television interviews and newspaper articles, in face-to-face meetings, and in fiery rhetoric from the pulpit, the pastor pressed the president to confront racist Southern politicians and end the indignity of segregation. But King's pleas had been largely ignored.

In the Oval Office, the television camera's red light blinked on and President Kennedy went live. He began by chiding Governor Wallace for his puffed-up defiance in the schoolhouse door that afternoon; he expressed his regret that the Alabama National Guard had to be called out to enforce a court order to desegregate the state's classrooms. But he was pleased by the outcome: that two qualified black students were now going to attend the University of Alabama.

The president reminded the nation that while Abraham Lincoln had freed the slaves a hundred years earlier, "their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free." He said America faced a moral crisis over race, and he called on all citizens to change the way they treated each other. It was time, he said, for action in Congress. Having refused to challenge lawmakers on this explosive issue, he now promised legislation to ensure equal treatment for black Americans. At last President Kennedy had found his voice—and his courage—on the most pressing domestic matter of the day: civil rights.

Watching in Atlanta, King leapt out of his chair. On the phone with friends, he wept. Hurriedly he shot off a telegram to the White House, calling the speech the clearest cry for black justice ever uttered by a president. It was a triumph not only for black Americans but for King himself. Although never claiming credit, King had played an instrumental role in Kennedy's transformation. He had directed his civil rights campaigns at the White House, knowing no real change was possible without the moral leadership of the president. His oratory, his pitched street battles, and his repeated jailings forced a distant president to pay attention. As John Lewis, the veteran civil rights activist and long-serving U.S. congressman, put it: "The very being, the very presence, of Martin Luther King Jr. pricked the conscience of John F. Kennedy."

In thirteen minutes on that June evening, Kennedy became the nation's first civil rights president. Looking back, King marveled at his evolution. "We saw two Kennedys," he explained, "a Kennedy the first two years and another Kennedy emerging in 1963." The second Kennedy, in King's view, was a man who not only saw the moral issues "but who was now willing to stand up in a courageous manner for them."

* * *

The civil rights story of the early 1960s is a tale of sit-ins, street protests, massive arrests, police brutality, church bombings, and unsolved murders. It is also a tale of two men—John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.—and their complicated relationship. Kennedy and King towered over the national landscape, and their interactions defined the early years of the civil rights era. While broad, forceful trends propel the trajectory of history, prominent personalities like Kennedy and King ultimately guide the course of human life. The nineteenth-century thinker Thomas Carlyle believed that great individuals, or heroes, shaped the world's destiny. Historian Margaret MacMillan explains: "Leaders have choices and the capacity to take history down one path rather than another."

Although Kennedy and King shared the historical stage, the two men inhabited vastly different worlds. One was a wealthy New England Irish Catholic, the other a black Southern Baptist preacher. Kennedy was leader of the free world, King spoke for America's twenty million blacks. The men had little natural rapport. When they met face-to-face, their social styles clashed: Kennedy was cool and witty, King taut and high-minded. But they had much in common, too: Both men benefited from their oratorical brilliance and from the profound love of domineering fathers; and both knew the pangs of discrimination—the Kennedys as Irish Catholic immigrants in Protestant Boston, the King family as descendants of slaves.

Often clashing but always respectful, Kennedy and King established a model for protest that is relevant today. By his persistence, King discovered a successful strategy for speaking truth to power. President Kennedy, although ambivalent at first, proved that progress is possible when power listens and learns. But historic change is never easy. King had to overcome White House mistrust, disregard, and stonewalling before his message sank in. As he observed: "It's a difficult thing to teach a president."




JOHN F. KENNEDY had a problem with black voters. Running hard for the 1960 presidential nomination, the Democratic senator was sailing through the primaries, notching win after win, but a majority of blacks were not turning out for him. To beat the likely Republican nominee, Vice President Richard Nixon, in the fall, Kennedy had to reel in the black vote. But doing so, his campaign staffers realized, would take a near miracle. His young aide, Ted Sorensen, was blunt about black feelings toward the candidate. "Many are distrustful," he warned in a memo. "Some are suspicious, some are bitterly opposed, few are enthusiastic."

Blacks had reason for wariness. Early in his political career, when he was a young congressman from Massachusetts, Kennedy had championed the black cause, but as he set his sights on the White House he tempered his positions. In the 1950s, the suave, wealthy senator sought to ingratiate himself with a crucial constituency: segregationist Southern whites. In 1959, as he neared the launch of his presidential campaign, he invited Alabama governor John Patterson, a virulent racist, to breakfast at his Georgetown home. When the governor emerged from the private parley he endorsed Senator Kennedy for president, calling him "a friend of the South." Blacks wondered if a secret deal had been struck: What promises had Kennedy made to gain Southern support?

Kennedy's compromises on civil rights infuriated Jackie Robinson, the former Brooklyn Dodger who broke the color barrier in major league baseball in 1947. In retirement Robinson had become a blunt voice for racial justice, rousing the community through a column he wrote for the New York Post, and Jack Kennedy was a frequent target. Worse perhaps, Robinson had developed an affection for Richard Nixon. When the two men met for the first time during the 1952 Republican National Convention, Nixon congratulated the ballplayer on a home run he'd hit that day against the Chicago Cubs, and the pair formed an instant bond. Robinson's affection for Nixon was in keeping with a tradition among blacks: Ever since Republican Abraham Lincoln had emancipated the slaves, blacks had largely favored the Republican Party. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal during the Depression started to peel away some of that support, but many blacks still identified with the party of Lincoln. Nixon and Robinson quickly found grounds for their friendship. Both men had grown up in southern California and Nixon, astonishingly, recalled during that first chat together a football move Robinson had executed in a game in 1939 when he played for UCLA. A Republican accompanying Nixon recalled the scene: "I said to Nixon as we walked away that, while Robinson had undoubtedly met a lot of notables during his career, nevertheless I was sure there was one person he would never forget." Indeed, he had not. In 1957, Robinson wrote to Vice President Nixon, praising him for speaking out on behalf of civil rights during a trip to Africa. In his speech in Ethiopia, Nixon had declared: "We shall never be satisfied… until… equal opportunity becomes a reality for all Americans," prompting Robinson to offer: "In this endeavor you have my best wishes and steadfast cooperation."

In 1956, Robinson had been a strong advocate of the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket, but he became disillusioned with President Eisenhower's weak commitment to civil rights. As the 1960 presidential campaign neared, he leaned toward the Democrats—but only on the condition that their nominee was committed on civil rights. In a December 1959 column, he laid down his challenge: "If it should come to a choice between a weak and indecisive Democratic nominee and Vice President Nixon, I, for one, would enthusiastically support Nixon."

The following month, days after Kennedy announced his candidacy, Robinson condemned the Massachusetts senator for his meeting with Governor Patterson. Writing to a magazine editor, Robinson said he was "strongly in favor of Nixon's principles, ethics and intellectual honesty," adding, "Would you have me support a Kennedy who met with one of the worst segregationists in private, and then this man, the Governor of Alabama, comes out with strong support of Senator Kennedy?"

In the presidential primaries, Robinson still leaned Democratic, backing Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey, who had a long-demonstrated, unwavering support for civil rights. To Robinson's chagrin, Kennedy thumped Humphrey in Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. But Kennedy's weakness among blacks was apparent. In Wisconsin, he lost by 3–2 margins in the predominantly black wards of Milwaukee. Analyzing the Wisconsin vote, Jet magazine pointed out, "Sen. Kennedy won the war, but lost the racial battle." For Humphrey, the news was worse: His campaign was all but over; even Nixon declared Kennedy a "shoo-in" for the Democratic nomination. Recognizing the Kennedy momentum, Robinson vowed in his column: "I must repeat my own determination to look elsewhere for a candidate should Kennedy capture the Democratic nomination."

Robinson's stubborn opposition confirmed the campaign's worst fears: Blacks were not sold on John F. Kennedy. The senator's brother and campaign manager, Robert Kennedy, flew into full crisis mode. He invited Notre Dame law professor Harris Wofford to the Kennedy campaign headquarters at the edge of Capitol Hill. Since the mid-1950s, Wofford had immersed himself in the civil rights movement and had befriended its leaders; at ease in interracial situations, he was one of very few white students ever to attend the storied black institution Howard University. Under intense pressure, the younger Kennedy begged Wofford to help. Turning his piercing blue eyes on the earnest, young law professor, Bobby agonized: "We're in trouble with Negroes."


JOHN KENNEDY KNEW about discrimination not from the experiences of blacks but from his own family's immigrant history. From the moment they stepped ashore in Boston in the late nineteenth century, his Irish Catholic ancestors struggled against exclusion by the established, ruling Protestants. "He felt that as an Irishman somewhere along the line he had been discriminated against," recalled his friend George Smathers. Unlike many Irish immigrants, the Kennedys climbed out of the slums and prospered through politics and business.

Kennedy's maternal grandfather, John F. Fitzgerald, was a born politician, rosy cheeked and outgoing; known as Honey Fitz, he was so garrulous his banter became known as Fitzblarney. His bright-eyed amiability won him three terms in the U.S. Congress before he captured the job he most coveted: mayor of Boston, serving as the first city boss whose parents were born in Ireland. Kennedy's paternal grandfather, Patrick Joseph Kennedy, showed early promise as a businessman. In his twenties he bought a run-down saloon, using loans from his family and his earnings from work as a stevedore on the Boston docks, and swiftly turned it into a thriving watering hole. P.J., as he was known, was an imposing figure with a handlebar mustache and a barman's willing ear; he had sharp blue eyes, a thick mane of red hair, and was a rare Irish teetotaler. Soon he bought himself another saloon, then a partnership in a Boston hotel, and finally established a profitable whiskey-importing business. Eventually he became a leading state legislator and was invited to the Democratic National Convention in 1888, where he gave a seconding speech for the presidential nomination of Grover Cleveland.

Kennedy's father, Joseph P. Kennedy, sought to further elevate the family's social status by amassing a fortune. As a youth he felt the sting of second-class citizenship in help-wanted ads that asked for "Protestants only" and warned: "No Irish need apply." By the 1920s Joe was a millionaire, thanks to some crafty stock market speculation, and he tooled around Boston in his chauffeured Rolls-Royce. But he never overcame feelings of social inferiority. His enormous wealth wasn't enough to break down barriers to membership at the Cohasset Golf Club. Decades later he was still aggrieved, as he told a newspaper reporter: "Those narrow-minded bigoted sons of bitches barred me because I was an Irish Catholic and son of a barkeep."

Joseph Kennedy married the devout and iron-willed Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald in 1914 and, after watching two games of the World Series in Philadelphia on their honeymoon, the couple began turning out a brood of nine children: Joseph Jr. arrived in 1915, and John in 1917, followed by five girls and two more boys, including Robert Kennedy in 1925. Joseph Kennedy nursed dreams of grand political success for his firstborn son as a path to social acceptance, and he was prepared to use his wealth and wits to choreograph Joe Jr.'s political ascent. Ever defiant, the patriarch enrolled young Joe Jr. and John in the elite private school Noble and Greenough in the 1920s, where bullies attacked them because of their Irish Catholic heritage. Of the two boys, Jack, at age seven, was the more frail; he was gaunt, with protruding ears, and because he had been frequently ill and had to convalesce for long periods, he had become a voracious reader. Joe, aged nine, was bigger, stronger, and healthier; he proudly wore the mantle of eldest, anointed son. Like his father, he was hot-tempered and resolved matters with his fists.

One day at recess, cocky Joe turned on his tormentors and a brawl ensued. Jack put up a tough front but he was not a fighter; instead he laid stakes on his brother. A classmate, Augustus Soule, recalled Jack Kennedy, already a cool-headed politician, circulating in the crowd betting on Joe Jr.'s grit. Wagers were made using the youthful currency of the day: marbles, which kids carried in a little bag in their pockets. By the end of the contest, Joe Jr. was battered but victorious and Jack was considerably wealthier in marbles. Later Soule admitted to his father that he lost all his marbles in a bet with Jack Kennedy. "It's an indelible memory," Soule recalled, "Joe fighting and getting all bloody, and Jack going around, betting marbles very quietly."

If the Kennedys suffered bias, their wealth and white skin cushioned the blow. What Jack and his family confronted was nowhere near as harsh as the day-to-day institutional degradation that blacks endured. Jack was intellectually opposed to discrimination, believing it was unfair and irrational. But his emotional grasp of black hardship did not go deep. Around the family dinner table, Jack and his siblings learned compassion for the disadvantaged, but blacks weren't singled out for special attention. "We did grow up with the idea that there were a lot of people that were less fortunate," Bobby Kennedy recalled. "And white people and Negroes were all put in the same category.… We had a social responsibility to try to do something about it. But as far as separating the Negroes for having a more difficult time than the white people, that was not a particular issue in our house."

Little evidence exists that Jack Kennedy harbored a racial bias. Seldom, if ever, was he heard to utter a slur. Once, as a teenager in 1936, he resorted to vulgar language during an extended illness, telling a friend that the Boston hospital where he was confined was a "nigger place." His usage of the epithet seemed an anomaly, occasioned more by naïveté and youth than a habit of bigoted slander. Insatiably curious about people, Kennedy did not seem to possess instinctive prejudice; nor was he given to the anti-Semitism that came easily to his father and his older brother. Jack did not isolate blacks on the basis of skin color; but if this attitude freed him of bigotry, it also prevented him from fully understanding racial discrimination.

Kennedy was as removed from the black community as most any white American coming of age in the first half of the twentieth century. Black churches were foreign to him; he rarely ventured into black neighborhoods; his interaction with black professionals was minimal; and he had almost no exposure to the racial hardship experienced in the segregated South. Any black seen in the Kennedy household was almost invariably a servant. For the Kennedys, interracial friendships were almost nonexistent, and if one took root, it was not a relationship of equals. "I never saw a Negro on level social terms with the Kennedys in all my years of acquaintance with them, and I never heard the subject mentioned," observed journalist Arthur Krock, who was a longtime family friend and promoter of the Kennedy image until the relationship later ruptured. Young Jack Kennedy didn't brood over the condition of blacks in America; the bitter reality of their existence scarcely entered his consciousness. As his brother Bobby once explained, "We didn't lie awake nights worrying about it."


AT HARVARD IN the late 1930s, Jack had a black valet courtesy of his father. George Taylor looked after Jack's clothes and shoes and served as his chauffeur. Jack and George developed a casual, jocular relationship. Snubbing the social hierarchy of the elite institution, Jack treated Taylor almost as one of the boys, seeking his advice, smoking cigars together, and chatting with him about their mutual passion for girls. Jack was a fun-loving gadabout during his student days; buddying around with his valet was in part the antics of an irreverent, open-minded kid. "We were good friends," Taylor recalled in an interview in 1964.

In college Jack had not yet decided to enter politics, perhaps preferring to teach or write. But at about age twenty the lanky, handsome boy tested his oratorical skills by giving his first speech at the Boston YMCA, focusing on the Soviet threat. Afterward, he was eager to hear his valet's opinion of his performance. "Taylor, how'd I do?" Jack asked him. And the valet let him know: "Jack, terrific!" Often dashing off to see local movies, and Broadway shows, and the opera in New York, Kennedy sometimes took his valet along. "He'd say, 'Come on, Taylor,' And we'd go to an opera," Taylor remembered, where he would gamely sit through the show.

Despite his friendliness toward his valet, college-age Jack had little interest in racial advocacy. Even as a young man, Jack was adept at compartmentalizing his world, and blacks resided in a distant, unexplored corner. His interests lay elsewhere: in women, good times, and foreign affairs. Jack's father, Joseph P. Kennedy, was United States ambassador to Great Britain, and Jack spent considerable time in London and traveling through Europe, which fired a passion for international relations. He wrote his undergraduate thesis on why Britain was slow to rearm before the Second World War and, with the help of family friends, got it published as a book, Why England Slept, in 1940 at age twenty-three.

During the war, the Kennedy family was shattered when favorite son Joe Jr. died on a risky bombing mission in Europe. Jack survived his own wartime calamity: the sinking of the PT boat he commanded in the Pacific. For his courage and for saving the life of a crewman he earned national praise as a war hero. Once when he was asked by a high school student how he became a hero, he replied with his self-effacing wit: "It was easy—they sank my boat." With the loss of Joe Jr., Jack returned from the war and accepted the mantle of the Kennedys' oldest son and began seeking to fulfill his father's dream of political greatness for the family.

Jack threw himself into campaigning for a congressional seat in Massachusetts, ignoring constant, sometimes debilitating, pain from lifelong back troubles that had been aggravated by the PT boat incident. In his father's eyes, tough, robust Joe Jr. had been destined for the White House; now all that had changed. In 1946, gangly Jack at age twenty-nine took to the hustings, ill informed about his district and lacking a polished speaking style. Jack was swept along by the Kennedy name, which had been established by his father's wealth and his stint as an ambassador. Joe Sr. funded the campaign, coached the young candidate, and was masterful in drumming up publicity. Night after night, father and son reviewed Jack's performances onstage, the patriarch teaching the candidate how to improve his delivery, and over time Jack gained confidence. Demanding as Joe Sr. was, he loved his children with an all-consuming passion. He urged Jack on with a combination of flattery and sharp criticism. "If I walked out on the stage," Jack recalled, "and fell flat on my face, Father would say I fell better than anyone else."

Jack's valet, George Taylor, stayed with him after college, but now the relationship became strained. In a 1977 interview, Taylor claimed that Jack had given him the job of appointments secretary in this first campaign but then shoved him aside in favor of a family friend. When Taylor complained, he said Kennedy told him: "As of now, you will just have to do with the cooking, the shoes, and my clothes." To which Taylor replied, "Jack, to hell with you." Taylor quit as valet but remained loyal to the candidate and helped rustle up black voters. One night when Jack bought sandwiches for his volunteers at a Cambridge restaurant, he directed the races to sit in separate dining areas. Taylor was outraged. "They're all giving their time," he told Jack. "They're all human beings. Why segregate in this way?" Jack replied: "George, you're thin-skinned. That's one of the things of the time." Taylor responded, "They don't have a color line here in Harvard Square."

Jack handily won the election and arrived in Washington in 1947 as Massachusetts representative for the Eleventh Congressional District, the same seat his grandfather Honey Fitz had held fifty years earlier. In a series titled "New Faces in the House," the Washington Post featured the new congressman under the headline: YOUNG KENNEDY HARD WORKER. This image of the industrious young legislator was planted no doubt by his father, master media manipulator, to counter perceptions of Jack Kennedy as a rich-boy, do-nothing ladies' man. The paper alluded to the reputation: "One of Massachusetts' most eligible bachelors—handsome, 6-foot John F. (Jack) Kennedy—will be one of the youngest members of the new Congress." But then the Post hewed to the Kennedy line: "The social lions of the Washington 'Cocktail Circuit' may be in for a disappointment, for the serious-minded 29-year-old son of the former Ambassador has little time for anything but work."

* * *

During his freshman term, Jack Kennedy espoused bedrock liberal policies that included calls to eliminate racial prejudice. But he stopped short of challenging the Southern culture of segregation, partly out of respect for regional customs and partly because of his ignorance of actual conditions in the South. Although he had traveled much of the world he had still rarely, if at all, stepped foot in the American Deep South.

To avoid the sticky national debate over equal rights, Kennedy approached the question largely as a local issue. "We weren't thinking of the Negroes of Mississippi or Alabama—what should be done for them," recalled Bobby Kennedy, who managed his brother's winning congressional campaign. "We were thinking of what needed to be done in Massachusetts." By keeping the focus local, Jack was free to accord his constituent blacks the respect any human deserved without having to perform a political dance to justify it. As a World War II veteran, he appreciated the sacrifices of all soldiers, regardless of race. He spoke at a 1948 ceremony honoring two black war heroes, and strolled through black communities with the same ease and charm he brought to the white neighborhoods. "Northern pols were normally stand-offish," recalled Harold Vaughan, a black aide in Boston. "But Kennedy would just walk into a beauty salon in a black neighborhood, go right up to the woman below the hairdryer and say: 'Hi, I'm Jack Kennedy.'"


  • "Comparing and contrasting disparate historical figures can easily be artificial, misleading, even gimmicky. Steven Levingston, however, has walked this tightrope magnificently. In his important new book, Kennedy and King, the rest of us get an unusual chance to study each leader in part through the other over a tumultuous, pivotal eight-year period. As is always the case with major contributions to our understanding, Levingston's is grounded in diligent research and detail.... Levingston's account of Birmingham, which chronicles the city's impact on each protagonist, is simply riveting. He is especially illuminating in following Kennedy's final steps when his attorney general brother nudged him to become 'the nation's first civil rights President.'"—Thomas Oliphant, The Washington Post
  • "Kennedy and King tells the story of two brilliant leaders who injected new meaning into the veins of American society. Together, their influence created a moral imperative that changed the U.S. and the world. Levingston's book is both historical and visionary. By reminding us of these great leaders and their accomplishments, this book will fuel your passion for the new work we still need to do in our society today."—Congressman John Lewis (D-GA)
  • "In this fascinating and timely book, Steven Levingston examines how these two young leaders in the early 1960s were being tested on the national scene--and testing each other. Despite their disparate backgrounds and personal styles, they came together to make history. Anyone who wants to understand America, the Civil Rights Movement, and the nature of leadership should read this book."—Walter Isaacson, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Steve Jobs and The Innovators
  • "Steven Levingston's Kennedy and King is an unqualified masterpiece of historical narrative. Every page sparkles with literary verve, eloquent storytelling, and keen analytic judgment. It might be the best dual biography I've ever read. A landmark achievement which elevates civil rights history into a high art form."—Douglas Brinkley, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Rosa Parks and The Reagan Diaries
  • "A riveting episode in American history."—Booklist (starred review)
  • "As the moral courage of Martin Luther King Jr. came up against the political instincts of President John F. Kennedy--with both men trying to save their nation--a new history was set in motion. It's all brought to fascinating light in Steven Levingston's righteous book."—Wil Haygood, New York Times bestselling author of Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination that Changed America
  • "History, politics, and ambition brought John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. together in the early 1960s. Their relationship was personally complex, it was fateful for the nation, and it has never been told more compellingly."—H.W. Brands, New York Times bestselling author of The General vs. The President
  • "Moral courage is the subject of this fascinating book. For Martin Luther King Jr. and, especially, for John F. Kennedy the path was rarely simple or straightforward. Steven Levingston has told a gripping, moving, revealing tale."—Evan Thomas, New York Times bestselling author of Robert Kennedy and Being Nixon
  • "As I read Kennedy and King, I imagine two giants, reluctantly waltzing on a tightrope with no safety net. I see them stumbling, almost falling, the dance interrupted by distance but saved by a tepid, occasionally enthusiastic embrace. This history buff's paradise adds texture and context to explain the complexity of an ultimately productive partnership. Every few pages of this amazingly detailed work contain an uncommon revelation. Levingston has made an important contribution to the work on these leaders and their shared cause. I inhaled this book, and I loved it."—Julianne Malveaux, author of Are We Better Off?: Race, Obama and Public Policy and President Emerita, Bennett College for Women
  • "A captivatingly written, thoroughly researched, and deeply thoughtful revisiting of an unforgettable historical partnership which continues to resonate."—David Garrow, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
  • "In this illuminating account Levingston charts the racial education of an ambitious Kennedy as he navigated the minefield of white southern bigotry and King's uncompromising moral vision and how, together, they transformed a nation."—Pamela Newkirk, author of Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga
  • "Levingston ... contrasts the unstoppable forces of King's soaring oratory, Christian principles, and moral authority with the immovable objects of Kennedy's privilege, political calculation, and presidential power. Their push and pull unfolded in a cultural cauldron that encompassed the Montgomery bus boycott, the freedom rides, King's stints in jail, the children's crusade in Birmingham, Gov. George Wallace's segregationist stand at the University of Alabama, and the march on Washington."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
  • "[In] this bracing dual biography, Levingston (Little Demon in the City of Light) adds an upbeat, humanistic flavor to the intersecting lives of his subjects. This book will hold wide appeal."—Library Journal
  • "Steven Levingston's fascinating Kennedy and King reveals one of the most crucial American political relationships of the twentieth century, demonstrating the vital importance of great leadership during the time when the American civil rights movement was in the balance."—Michael Beschloss, New York Times bestselling author of Presidential Courage and NBC News Presidential Historian
  • "Levingston's writing on King is unfailingly perceptive and eloquent... Thanks to Levingston's impressive narrative skills, the spectacle of this president confronting the most divisive issue of his day is consistently fascinating."—Christian Science Monitor
  • "Absorbing... Levingston writes with passion and flair. If these pages don't rouse you, call your doctor."—James Goodman, New York Times Book Review
  • "[A] superb portrait of two gifted men and their indelible impact on American history, chronicling the tortuous courtship--as one's passion collided with the other's ambivalence--that finally wedded them in the fight for civil rights, an outcome that was far from foreordained."—
  • "Expertly highlights the interconnections between these two seminal figures in mid-20th-century America... Dual biographies are hard to pull off, but Levingston does it splendidly in his portrait of two divergent personalities finally coming together, if only briefly, over matters of gravest consequence."—Dallas Morning News
  • "Insightful and well-crafted.... At a time when cynicism about our political system abounds, [Kennedy and King] reminds us that outsiders can prod those in power toward progress and reform."—Wall Street Journal
  • "Levingston is a captivating storyteller and his account is both simple and profoundly moving.... [His] telling of the civil rights battles is so timely: The monumental strides made by King and Kennedy were not due to their immense talents, skills or political power. Ultimately, the key was the unrelenting persistence that comes from moral courage. We just have to find it again today."—Charleston Post and Courier

On Sale
Mar 27, 2018
Page Count
528 pages
Hachette Books

Steven Levingston

About the Author

Steven Levingston is the author of Little Demon in the City of Light, Kennedy and King, which was named a New York Times Editor’s Choice selection and a Washington Post Notable Book of 2017, and Barack and Joe. The non-fiction book editor of the Washington Post, he has lived and worked in Beijing, Hong Kong, New York, Paris, and Washington and reported and edited for the Wall Street Journal and International Herald Tribune.

Learn more about this author