In 1958, black leaders met with President Dwight D. Eisenhower to request that he submit new civil rights legislation to Congress and openly pledge to support the Brown v. Board of Education decision.
But like many Americans, President Eisenhower hadn’t given much thought to black concerns and didn’t consider them important. He did not address the black leaders’ requests.
In 1960, the presidential election was hotly contested. The candidates were Richard M. Nixon, a Republican, and Senator John F. Kennedy, a Democrat. As the election approached, civil rights emerged as a major issue, but both candidates tried to avoid talking about it.
If they were seen to be in favor of civil rights they might lose white votes. If they were against civil rights, they might lose black votes, which were growing thanks to voter registration drives. But when Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested during a demonstration and sentenced to four month’s hard labor, John Kennedy made his first open civil rights move by calling Martin Luther King’s wife with a promise to help. His brother, Robert Kennedy, followed with a call to the judge, who reversed the decision.
Without making an official endorsement, King publicly complimented Kennedy’s courage and acknowledged that it helped get him released from jail.
Receiving 75 percent of the black vote, John F. Kennedy won the election. African Americans had helped to make a president.