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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

It bounced around the White House for a bit—but remember, this was December ’62. Kennedy had just weathered the global threat of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and his administration was preoccupied with efforts to free the Bay of Pigs prisoners still in Cuba. He just didn’t respond to the draft proclamation, and missed the January 1 deadline, too.

After that, the White House announced a plan to host a social event for Lincoln’s birthday. From Kennedy’s point of view, it was a good solution—he could avoid the risk of issuing an executive order in a way that emphasized how much the emancipation tradition belonged to Republicans, not Democrats. He used Lincoln’s birthday as the occasion to invite many black dignitaries into the White House, which had been mostly off-limits except in token ways. The White House endured a great deal of negative press for inviting Sammy Davis Jr., who had a white wife. The idea of a mixed-race couple in the White House was still very controversial in 1963—which in itself is a pretty good sign of how blighted and benighted people were about race.

Did King go to the White House event for Lincoln’s birthday?

No. When Kennedy blew the New Year’s Day anniversary, King realized he could no longer count on Kennedy to take leadership on civil rights. Nor could he bear any longer to let young people—that is, college students, the Freedom Riders, the ones going to sit-ins and to jail—bear the whole burden of raising the issue of segregation. King was worried he was losing his window in history. He believed every movement was about political timing: you only get so much capital to spend, you only get so many chances. He thought the issue of desegregation was beginning to recede. He said southerners were rallying to the defense of segregation more strongly than supporters of the Brown [vs. Board of Education] decision were rallying to freedom. King felt they needed to change the climate of public opinion in their favor—and that meant taking a risk.

It was after Kennedy blew this second deadline that King realized he had nothing left to wait for. He had to “go for broke,” as he called it, and head down to Birmingham, Alabama, which was considered the toughest bastion of racism in the South. It’s hard for people to understand what a big leap that was for him, but one way of understanding it is that he didn’t tell his own father, or the board of his protest group, that he was going. He didn’t want them to try to stop him.

Would it be fair to say that Kennedy’s failure to embrace the second Emancipation Proclamation catalyzed a turning point in the civil rights movement?

King knew that Lincoln had issued the original Emancipation Proclamation in the middle of a war with lots of people dying. I think he realized that in order to get the president, or anyone, to act, what he had to do was go to Birmingham and essentially recreate those conditions—not a full-fledged civil war, but something that dramatized the moral imperative of the segregation issue in America.

In the end, King authorized not only high school students, but also elementary school students as young as six years old, to participate in a huge wave of demonstrations beginning May 2. That’s when Birmingham brought out the dogs and fire hoses and shocked the world. That’s when the issue of segregation really broke through people’s emotional barriers, not only in the United States but around the world. Up until that point, people had always found ways to evade the problem, to say it was someone else’s responsibility or that time would solve the problem. King had always known on some level that he’d have to join the students in the street, but like all of us who are human, he looked for an easier way until every door was closed and his conscience wouldn’t let him avoid it anymore.

Did Kennedy miss a major moral opportunity to do the right thing?

It’s historically accurate to say that Kennedy was not the vanguard figure in civil rights that popular history makes him out to be. It’s also true, however, that his fears were probably justified. Had he issued an executive order against segregation through a second Emancipation Proclamation, it probably would have weakened his administration without accomplishing anything. The southern states would have declared it illegal. They would have said he couldn’t declare a war measure since there wasn’t a war going on. And that would have made Kennedy look ineffectual, reduced his prestige, and perhaps cost him the next election. And then the next president would be even less likely to take on the entrenched power of the southern states. So unless you expect your political leaders to give up the prospect of holding office, you have to acknowledge that he had pretty good reason not to act on a second Emancipation Proclamation.

Kennedy did finally go on television and propose a civil rights bill in June of 1963, but by that time demonstrations of sympathy for what had happened in Birmingham had broken out in hundreds of cities across the country. At that point, Kennedy didn’t have any choice but to calm the fires of protest before they consumed his government.

King succeeded in getting Kennedy to act, just not in the way he’d intended.

People are always tempted to say that presidents and leaders should supply all the initiative, but in fact what worked in the civil rights movement was the combination of an aroused citizenry, which claimed rights and changed the political mood, and responsive national leaders. President Johnson later said that if, at the right time, King and the priests and ministers who were risking their lives down in Selma changed the political climate enough, then I can and will propose the voting rights bill. And he did. And that was really the pinnacle of cooperation between citizens taking responsibility for their government and government leaders responding to a political climate—a political climate created by the citizens themselves.

Click here to read more from our Jan/Feb 2013 cover package “Race, History, and Obama’s Second Term.”

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.