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

Article excerpt

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. …