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Eyes on the Prize
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The 1960 Presidential Election

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Senator John F. Kennedy, seated on the back of a convertible campaigning in Yonkers, New York, 1960.

The presidential election of 1960 was one of the closest in history. During the campaign, Republican Richard M. Nixon and Democrat John F. Kennedy mostly avoided civil rights issues, afraid to alienate Southern voters. In October of that year, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested at a sit-in in Atlanta. Word reached the Kennedy campaign and two aides, Harris Wofford and Sargent Shriver, arranged for the candidate to make a sympathetic call to King's wife, Coretta Scott King. Meanwhile, Robert Kennedy called the judge in the case.

"It's time for all of us to take off our Nixon button," Martin Luther King, Sr. said after the Kennedy brothers' show of support. Because state Democratic parties held a lock on the political process in the South, baseball great Jackie Robinson and other African Americans had been supporting the Republican candidate. Republicans had attracted African American votes since the days of Abraham Lincoln, emancipation, and the Fifteenth Amendment. Now that tradition of support vanished -- Kennedy received 68 percent of the black vote and won the presidency.

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