Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Sargent Shriver R.I.P.

Yesterday brought the sad news of the passing of R. Sargent Shriver (more remembrances here and here).  Best known for his work in the creation and leading of the Peace Corps, his direction of LBJ's War on Poverty, and for his tireless work for Special Olympics, Shriver also played a crucial role in several elections, both as a candidate and a confidante.  I'm going to devote a couple posts to Shriver, someone who I was vervy fortunate to meet while in college and who was inspirational to me in a lot of ways.

The first electoral episode that I want to explore relates to Shriver's role in the 1960 Kennedy campaign.  As brother in law to then candidate Kennedy, Shriver played an active role in many aspects of the campaign--delegate courting, position development, and especially working the important Illinois operation given Shriver's close ties to Chicago as head of the Merchandise Mart and positions on numerous boards and community organizations.  Most importantly, Shriver was the head of the campaign's Civil Rights section.  One thing that I think a lot of people take for granted is up until this point the African American vote was not as monolithically Democratic as it is today, nor was it as important to candidates' electoral college math.  Prior to FDR's ability to pull black voters into the New Deal Coalition, African Americans--dating back to Lincoln and Reconstruction--had strong GOP sympathies.  Furthermore, prior to the Great Migrations around World War I and II, the blacks (with few if any voting rights) tended to be heavily concentrated in the already solid Democratic deep south.  Thus, by the time of the 1960 election, Democratic candidates were becoming increasingly aware of the importance of the growing northern black vote, especially in close elections.  The peril of courting this vote however, was that it endangered upsetting southern whites whose votes were also crucial to victory.

Here is where Shriver played a crucial role in Kennedy's election.  In Theodore White's magisterial "The Making of the President 1960," he recounts Kennedy's deft decision, orchestrated by Shriver, to swing large numbers of black voters to the Kennedy ticket, thus helping ensure his narrow victory.  I'll quote at length:

The most interesting and precise of the decisions of this period, however, was one made by the candidate himself--particularly as it contrasted with the simultaneous Nixon decision on the same problem.  This concerned the Martin Luther King affair--an episode that tangled conscience with the most delicate balancing of the Northern Negro--Southern white vote.

Martin Luther King is one of the genuine heroes of the tumultuous Negro struglle for authentic equality in American life; a luminous man, he speaks responsibly for the best there is in his community.  On Wednesday, October 19th--at about the same time of the day that John Kennedy and Richard Nixon were addressing the American Legion in Miami on the national defense--Martin Luther King was arrested with fifty-two other Negroes in Rich's Department Store in Atlanta for refusing to leave a table in its Magnolia Room restaurant.  On the following Monday, all other "sit-ins" arrested in this episode were released; King alone was held in jail and, worse, sentenced on a technicality to four months' hard labor and thereupon whisked away secretly to the State Penitentiary.  This was no ordinary arrest--no Negro in America has more deservedly earned greater warmth and adoration from his fellow Negroes, North or South, than Martin Luther King; but no Negro menaces the traditional prerogatives of Southern whites more importantly.  It was not beyond possibility that he would never emerge alive from Reidsville State Prison, deep in "cracker" country, where he had been taken; nor did anyone believe more in the prospect of his lynching than his wife, then six months pregnant...The American Negro community girded; so did Southern whites; during the previous few weeks, even before the arrest, no less than three Southern governors had informed Kennedy headquarters directly that if he intruded in Southern affairs to support or endorse Martin Luther King, then the South could be given up as lost to the Democratic ticket.  Now Kennedy must choose.  This was a crisis.

The crisis was instantly recognized by all concerned with the Kennedy campaign.  On the night of Tuesday, October 25th, the suggestion for meeting it was born to one of those remarkably competent young men that the Kennedy organization had brought into politics to direct the Civil Rights Section of their campaign, a Notre Dame law professor named Harris Wofford.  Wofford's idea was as simple as it was human--that the candidate telephone directly to Mrs. King in Georgia to express his concern.  Desperately Wofford tried to reach his own chief, Sargent Shriver, head of the Civil Rights Section of the Kennedy campaign, so that Shriver might break through to the candidate while barnstorming somewhere in the Middle West.  Early Wednesday morning, Wofford was able to locate Shriver, the gentlest and warmest of the Kennedy clan (he had married Eunice Kennedy, the candidate's favorite sister) in Chicago--and Shriver enthusiastically agreed.  Moving fast, Shriver reached the candidate at O'Hare Inn at Chicago's International Airport as the latter was preparing to leave for a day of barnstorming in Michigan.

The candidate's reaction to Wofford's suggestion of participation was impulsive, direct and immediate.  From his room at the Inn, without consulting anyone, he placed a long distance telephone call to Mrs. Martin Luther King, assured her of his interest and concern for her suffering and, if necessary, his intervention.

Mrs. King, elated yet still upset, informed a few of her closest friends.  Through channels of Negro leadership, the word swiftly spread from Atlanta, and thus to the press, that Kennedy had intervened to protect the imprisoned Negro leader.  And Bobby Kennedy, informed in the course of the day of the command decision, proceeded even further and the next morning telephoned a plea for King's release from New York to the Georgian judge who had set the sentence; on Thursday King was released from Reidsville prison on bail, pending appeal--safe and sound.

The entire episode received only casual notice from the generality of American citizens in the heat of the last three weeks of the Presidential campaign.  But in the Negro community the Kennedy intervention rang like a carillon.  The father of Martin Luther King, a Baptist minister himself, who had come out for Nixon a few weeks earlier on religious grounds, now switched.  "Because this man," said the Reverend Mr. King, Senior, "was willing to wipe the tears from my daughter-in-law's eyes, I've got a suitcase of votes, and I'm going to take them to Mr. Kennedy and dump them in his lap."  Across the country scores of Negro leaders, deeply Protestant but even more deeply impressed by Kennedy's action, followed suit.  And where command decision had been made, the Kennedy decision could follow through.  Under Wofford's direction a million pamphlets describing the episode were printed across the country, half a million in Chicago alone, whence they were shipped by Greyhound bus.  On the Sunday before election, these pamphlets were distributed outside Negro churches across the country.  One cannot identify in the narrowness of American voting of 1960 any one particular episode or decision as being more important than any other in the final tallies: yet when one reflects that Illinois was carried by only 9,000 votes and that 250,000 Negroes are estimated to have voted for Kennedy; that Michigan was carried by 67,000 votes and that an estimated 250,000 Negroes voted for Kennedy; that South Carolina was carried by 10,000 votes and that an estimated 40,000 Negroes there voted for Kennedy, the candidate's instictive decision must be ranked among the most crucial of the last few weeks.

Next time...Shriver is tapped, belatedly, as George McGovern's running mate in 1972.