The African American Vote

Another aspect of the election that swayed the race in Kennedy’s favor was the African American vote. In the years leading up to 1960, many colonies in Africa were winning their independence and becoming their own nations, and the Soviet Union took advantage of the civil rights issues in America by encouraging the new African countries to takes sides with them instead. As a result, when Nixon made trips in the South, he decided to touch on the issue of civil rights, as one of his main platforms was winning the Cold War: “I touched on the civil rights issues- not because I wanted to lecture the people of the South on what I knew was a difficult problem for them, but because I had always believed it to be the responsibility of a political leader to tell the people exactly where he stands on issues” (Donaldson, 105).  However, regardless of whether he chose to support the African Americans or white Southerners, his stand would be unpopular with one.


In the end, he chose to support the white Southerners.  Given this decision, he could have minimized the loss of African American votes by trying to appeal to both sides. Instead, he made it extremely obvious he was going to give the white Southerners everything they wanted. In his speeches, he showed he had no intention of changing the Southern social system, and that segregation would remain if he were elected.  For example, in Greensboro, North Carolina, he stated, “In American education we always want to preserve freedom, and one of the essences of freedom in this country is local and state control of the educational system,” indicating states would be able to maintain segregation in schools (Donaldson, 106). On the other hand, all he gave African Americans was the statement that he did not support the segregation in the South, which most assumed was only because of its consequences for the Cold War; he thereby isolated a huge portion of the electorate. Over 65% of African American voters would end up voting for Kennedy, largely as a result of this.

Another problem confronted Nixon when his running mate, Henry Cabot Lodge, promised that a “Negro” would be appointed to the president’s cabinet if Nixon won.  This statement  turned many African Americans against him, as they saw it as simply a strategic move to steal votes away from Kennedy. Some Southern whites, whose votes Nixon worked hard to get, did not like the proposition, either.

mlk-assassination-359.gifOn the other hand, Kennedy strategically aimed to gather support from the African Americans. In the first debate, for example, he stated that the future plight of the children of the African Americans was an example of how freedom was not being maintained to the best degree possible. On October 19, he was given the opportunity to show even more support, not just through words but through actions, when local authorities arrested seventy-five African American protesters in Atlanta, among them Martin Luther King, Jr. This group asked to be served at the Magnolia Room at Rich’s, a restaurant that served only whites, and they were thrown in jail as a result (Matthews, 170).


“Nevertheless, I was grateful to Senator Kennedy for the genuine concern he expressed about my arrest… After they transferred me to Reidsville-in a segregated cell-block, a place where inmates who had attacked guards, psychotics, and other special cases were housed… The first thing he did was call my wife. She was pregnant, and this was kind of a rough experience for her, so he called her and expressed his concern. He said that he would do whatever he could and that he would think this over with his brother and try to use his influence to get me released. In the meantime, Robert Kennedy called the judge to find out about the bond… I was released the next day.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.

Kennedy acted wisely by not only helping to procure King’s release, but also reaching out to his wife, Coretta Scott King, who was pregnant and afraid for the life of her husband. The advice of Harrison Woffard, a civil rights activist who reached out to Kennedy, sums up the strategical advantages: “Negroes don’t expect everything will change tomorrow no matter who’s elected, but they do want to know whether you care… You will reach their hearts and give support to a pregnant woman who is afraid her husband will be killed (Matthews, 171). As a result, Martin Luther King, Jr. acknowledged his personal debt to the Kennedys for their assistance and that he believed Kennedy cared about the African Americans in general, as well. In the days following, several members of Kennedy’s campaign team worked with two ministers from Philadelphia to create and distribute a pamphlet, printed on blue paper, called “The Case of Martin Luther King,” which documented the story and spread the word of Kennedy’s position on the matter. 2 million copies were printed and sent out to African American churches; this “blue bomb” significantly swayed the election (Casey, 195). Nixon’s inaction gave Kennedy the upper hand; one man, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, noted that all Nixon’s silence did for him was that people would “return his silence at the polls” (Matthews, 174).

In the end, Kennedy received 68% of the African American vote, and strong support from blacks in the South and urban areas helped him win South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania (Rorabaugh, 182). The black vote helped sway the election in Kennedy’s favor.

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