In October 1960, Robert F. Kennedy intercedes with a judge on behalf of Martin Luther King Jr., who was sentenced to jail in Atlanta.
Robert F. Kennedy Secures the Release of Martin Luther King Jr. from Prison
Senator HARRIS WOFFORD: In October, in the last weeks of the election, John and Robert discovered they were in deep trouble with the black voters. My first role was saying, “You ought to know the key people, the key players, and spend some time with them.” That included Martin Luther King. With Martin Luther King, we had a real disadvantage in that Daddy King was an ardent Baptist who did not want a Catholic in the White House, and in fact, signed a full-page ad for Baptist preachers and others for Richard Nixon.
Mrs. CORETTA SCOTT KING: Martin had been asked to sit in with students at the lunch counter downtown in Rich's of Atlanta. And he agreed to do so. After he agreed to do so, of course, he was arrested, as he expected to be arrested. All of the students came out of jail, and they kept Martin Luther King Jr., because they said that he had a traffic violation and he had violated his probation. The judge sentenced him to six months hard labor in Reedsville State Penitentiary. I had this telephone call from then-Senator Kennedy, and he inquired of my well-being, and said he was concerned about my husband and thinking about me, that he wanted me to know that if there was anything that he could do to be helpful, to please let him know.
Mr. JOHN SEIGENTHALER, Sr.: Bob Kennedy was going to upstate New York, and I drove him to the airport, and he said, “I think I should call that judge and give him a piece of my mind, tell him exactly him what I have in mind, why I think it's wrong.” And I said, “If I were you, I wouldn't do it. I would forget it.” And when I put him on the airplane I was certain that I had talked him out of it.
Mrs. KING: The next we heard, a member of the Kennedy family had interceded with the judge of De Kalb County as to why Martin Luther King, Jr. could not have bail, because we wanted to get him out of prison.
Mr. WILLIAM HADDAD (Aide To RFK): I got a call from our head of our southern forces in Georgia, and I'm using a word that I never used myself, but he said--he got on the phone, he was screaming. I said, “What the hell is going on? What are you screaming about?” He said, “You let that nigger out of jail, and you let that goddamn nigger out of jail. God, you lost us the campaign. Kiss the South goodbye. Call Bobby, find Bobby.”
Mr. SEIGENTHALER: Kennedy called in, and I said, “That crazy judge down there says you telephoned him and I denied it.” He said, “Take the denial back.”
Mrs. KING: Daddy King was saying that night, “You know, I never voted for a Catholic before. I never thought I could, but, you know, if I had a sack full of votes, I'd take them up to Washington and put them at the feet of Senator John F. Kennedy.”
Editor's Note: On April 4, 1968, Senator Robert Kennedy was on the campaign trail in Indianapolis, Indiana, seeking the Democratic nomination for president when he received word that civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated that day in Memphis, Tennessee. Senator Kennedy had been set to deliver a stump speech to a mostly African-American audience. He decided to skip his prepared speech. Instead, he delivered improvised remarks, speaking from the back of a flatbed truck.