The Race to Save Martin Luther King Jr.'s Life and Win the 1960 Election
Author: Stephen Kendrick and Paul Kendrick
"[A] masterly and often riveting account of King’s ordeal and the 1960 'October Surprise' that may have altered the course of modern American political history." —Raymond Arsenault, The New York Times Book Review (Editors' Choice)
The authors of Douglass and Lincoln present fully for the first time the story of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s imprisonment in the days leading up to the 1960 presidential election and the efforts of three of John F. Kennedy’s civil rights staffers who went rogue to free him—a move that changed the face of the Democratic Party and propelled Kennedy to the White House.
Less than three weeks before the 1960 presidential election, thirty-one-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested at a sit-in at Rich’s Department Store in Atlanta. That day would lead to the first night King had ever spent in jail—and the time that King’s family most feared for his life.
An earlier, minor traffic ticket served as a pretext for keeping King locked up, and later for a harrowing nighttime transfer to Reidsville, the notorious Georgia state prison where Black inmates worked on chain gangs overseen by violent white guards. While King’s imprisonment was decried as a moral scandal in some quarters and celebrated in others, for the two presidential candidates—John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon—it was the ultimate October surprise: an emerging and controversial civil rights leader was languishing behind bars, and the two campaigns raced to decide whether, and how, to respond.
Stephen and Paul Kendrick’s Nine Days tells the incredible story of what happened next. In 1960, the Civil Rights Movement was growing increasingly inventive and energized while white politicians favored the corrosive tactics of silence and stalling—but an audacious team in the Kennedy campaign’s Civil Rights Section (CRS) decided to act. In an election when Black voters seemed poised to split their votes between the candidates, the CRS convinced Kennedy to agitate for King’s release, sometimes even going behind his back in their quest to secure his freedom. Over the course of nine extraordinary October days, the leaders of the CRS—pioneering Black journalist Louis Martin, future Pennsylvania senator Harris Wofford, and Sargent Shriver, the founder of the Peace Corps—worked to tilt a tight election in Kennedy’s favor and bring about a revolution in party affiliation whose consequences are still integral to the practice of politics today.
Based on fresh interviews, newspaper accounts, and extensive archival research, Nine Days is the first full recounting of an event that changed the course of one of the closest elections in American history. Much more than a political thriller, it is also the story of the first time King refused bail and came to terms with the dangerous course of his mission to change a nation. At once a story of electoral machinations, moral courage, and, ultimately, the triumph of a future president’s better angels, Nine Days is a gripping tale with important lessons for our own time.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux