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January/ February 2013 A Second Emancipation

One hundred years after Lincoln signed the Proclamation, Martin Luther King Jr. tried unsuccessfully to get President John F. Kennedy to issue a second one. That failure changed the course of history.

By Taylor Branch and Haley Sweetland Edwards

In October 1961, Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy took an after-lunch stroll through the elegant hallways of the White House residence. Their meeting that day was not official: it was not in the White House’s appointment book, and King had not been formally invited to discuss any sort of business. It was instead a guarded and rather stilted introduction for leaders of professed goodwill, in a political climate that remained extremely sensitive about race.

When the men passed the Lincoln Bedroom on their tour, King noticed the Emancipation Proclamation framed on the wall, and took the opportunity to raise, ever so delicately, the pressing issue of civil rights. King suggested something radical: a second Emancipation Proclamation, a proposal that would become the centerpiece of King’s lobbying campaign for the next year.

Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights scholar and biographer of King, recently sat down with Washington Monthly editor Haley Sweetland Edwards and explained this idea, what happened next, and how Kennedy’s choice on the matter altered King’s thinking and the course of the civil rights movement.

How did the off-the-record meeting between King and Kennedy come about that October evening?

The administration had summoned King to Washington for a meeting that day at the Justice Department, where officials insisted that one of his advisers was a dangerous communist subversive and that King had to get rid of him. King was still shaken by the demand when he went into the residence, not the West Wing, for his private meeting with the president. An appointment with the president would have been too controversial—King was still a radioactive figure then. He had gone to jail in the South; he’d been indicted and tried for violating segregation laws embedded in the constitutions of the southern states; and he’d been denounced by the same governors who’d supported the president. King’s White House visit was deliberately made intimate but hidden, and social. He was led upstairs to the residence for a private luncheon with President Kennedy and Jackie.

Jackie’s presence was a signal to King that he couldn’t say anything political that would ruin the moment—nothing about segregation or the sit-ins or the Freedom Rides that shook the country that year. They talked politely about their educations in Boston, their children, and that sort of thing.

Why, of all things, did King suggest a second Emancipation Proclamation?

When they were walking down the hallway, King saw the Emancipation Proclamation hanging on the wall in the Lincoln Bedroom. It provided an excuse for him to bring up politics in a positive way—to talk about the historic glow of Lincoln’s decision. King suggested that perhaps the president would consider issuing a second Emancipation Proclamation for January of 1963, on the 100th anniversary of the first one. Just as Lincoln had used an executive order to abolish slavery in the Southern states, King said, Kennedy could outlaw segregation.

King loved the idea of a second Emancipation Proclamation. He thought it would be easier for Kennedy than passing legislation—southerners had strangled every significant civil rights proposal in Congress for a century. At the same time, King hoped for an initiative by the president to make things easier for a struggling civil rights movement. King had not joined the Freedom Rides himself, nor yet accepted the personal sacrifice of a determined campaign to end segregation. He deeply hoped that if the president issued an executive order, there could be an easy way out for both of them.

What happened after that conversation outside the Lincoln Bedroom?

For the next six months, King and his lawyers drafted a second Emancipation Proclamation in Kennedy’s name. Then in May of 1962, when King was in Washington for a meeting to launch his Gandhi Society for Human Rights, he delivered a copy to the White House personally. It was a very fancy draft, bound in leather for the president, with copies for all the lower-level officials involved in civil rights. The cover letter said, “We ask that you proclaim all segregation statutes of all southern states to be contrary to the constitution, and that the full powers of your office be employed to void their enforcement.” The idea was to get the president to issue this second executive order on September 22, 1962—the hundredth anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued after the Civil War battle of Antietam.

How did Kennedy respond?

He didn’t. Not even by private letter. A while later, when King received an invitation to a White House luncheon for the archbishop of Cyprus, he declined. The standoff turned into an understated duel of manners. Kennedy was trying to keep things social, and King, by turning down the luncheon, was trying to signal that he could not be bought off. He had very real business that required attention.

For Kennedy, addressing segregation was a hornet’s nest. Because he knew that no Democrat could hope to be elected without the support of the solid South, it was never quite the right moment to become politically exposed on the issue of segregation.

During his 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy had promised action to reduce segregation wherever the powers of the federal government reached. He’d said he could end segregation in federally subsidized public housing “with the stroke of a pen”—in other words, without getting it through Congress. Once in office, however, he stalled. Supporters of civil rights actually mailed thousands of pens to the White House in a publicity campaign with a rare touch of humor, saying the president must have misplaced his pen.

Meanwhile, excruciating dramas over segregation continued after the Freedom Rides in the summer of ’61, which Kennedy said were embarrassing the United States. When Kennedy met with Premier Krushchev in Vienna, he said he had to endure criticism—from the Soviets, of all people, who had no freedom!—that America could not be free, judging by the way it treated its black citizens. By September of 1962, it still took a lethal riot and a year’s occupation by 20,000 U.S. soldiers to secure the token integration of Ole Miss by its first black student, James Meredith.

So the September anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation came and went without note from the White House?

This was a big disappointment to King, and a shock to King’s allies in Congress. King actually got them to write a letter saying that they’d understood the president was going to come to an event on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on September 22. Their fallback plan was to goad the White House into action on January 1, 1963, the 100th anniversary of the New Year’s Day on which the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.

Toward that end, after months of lobbying, King delivered another draft of the second Emancipation Proclamation to the White House on December 17, 1962. It was much shorter. By this point, he’d backtracked on asking the president to proclaim all the segregation laws null. Instead, this draft called only for the nation to celebrate the spirit and example of the Emancipation Proclamation throughout 1963, invoking Lincoln’s legacy behind President Kennedy.

How did Kennedy react to that draft?

Taylor Branch and Haley Sweetland Edwards collaborated on this article. Branch is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who first wrote for the Washington Monthly in 1969. His new book, "The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement," is being published in January 2013. Haley Sweetland Edwards is an editor of the Washington Monthly.