Journalist and Author Steven Levingston

The author discusses his latest book, Kennedy and King: the President, the Pastor, and the Battle for Civil Rights.

Steven Levingston is the nonfiction editor of The Washington Post and author of “Kennedy and King: The President, the Pastor, and the Battle over Civil Rights.” He has written two other books: “Little Demon in the City of Light: A True Story of Murder and Mesmerism in Belle Époque Paris” (Doubleday, 2014) and “The Kennedy Baby: The Loss that Transformed JFK” (Washington Post eBook, 2013).

Before becoming nonfiction editor at the Post, Levingston worked for the Wall Street Journal, the International Herald Tribune, the Associated Press and the China Daily, with stints in Beijing, Hong Kong and Paris.  He grew up in Southern California and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University.

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Smiley: So pleased to welcome Steven Levingston to this program. His new book is on everybody’s summer reading list. It’s called “Kennedy and King: The President, The Pastor, And the Battle Over Civil Rights.” In it, he explores the unique and transformative relationship between these two icons. First of all, Mr. Levingston, thank you, thank you, thank you, for writing this text.

Steven Levingston: Oh, well thank you for reading it. Thank you for having me.

Smiley: Am I glad to have you on. From your research, we learned that King and Kennedy, when they first meet, have sort of an awkward first dance.

Levingston: Well, yeah. They had an awkward first dance because they are two very different characters.

Smiley: Mm-hmm.

Levingston: As we know, Kennedy is sort of a guy who loves witty banter, he loves to kind of joke around, and have a good time. He comes from a white Boston Irish family. And King comes from quite a different background, as we know. And the two of them, when they got together, their characters sort of clashed in a way because King was a little bit contained, restrict — he sort of restricted himself in a sense, and Kennedy sort of wanted something more from him. Kennedy wanted him to basically come out in favor of him.

Smiley: Mm-hmm.

Levingston: In the election, which King doesn’t do, and didn’t do.

Smiley: Mm-hmm. How did JFK take that? Personally?

Levingston: Not well, I think.

Smiley: Yeah.

Levingston: He was expecting that, you know, as the Kennedys think, they can get pretty much what they wanted. And they needed a strong black voice on their side. And King was the one that he wanted to go after because he was having trouble with rounding up black votes as the election was nearing in 1960. And he was hearing a lot of criticism from one of the leading black civil rights advocates, and baseball hero, Jackie Robinson.

Smiley: Mm.

Levingston: Who was writing and saying many things about Kennedy’s civil rights record that were true, and that did not put him in a good light.

Smiley: Why did Kennedy, and don’t laugh at the question, but I can hear the laughter already, why did Kennedy think he was entitled to get the black vote at that point, given his invisible record on civil rights?

Levingston: Right.

Smiley: His non-existent record.

Levingston: Yeah. That’s a good question.

Smiley: You want Dr. King’s endorsement for what? You ain’t done nothing.

Levingston: Right. Well, that I think was a little bit of hubris, really.

Smiley: Yeah.

Levingston: Because he wasn’t — he wasn’t entitled to it.

Smiley: Yeah.

Levingston: He hadn’t done much. He had spent a lot of time making friends with southern racists, southern governors. And you know, trying to build a wider base for his run for the presidency by attracting everybody he could, especially the southern voters in the south, including the — including the white.

Smiley: Yeah. Is it your read, given the research, that part of the reason there was this conflict to begin with, is because while King is a — while Kennedy, rather, is a political force to be reckoned with, Martin brings a moral force to the table. And oftentimes, the moral and the political don’t mesh so well together.

Levingston: Right. Right. Well, that’s really the core of the book, I think. The book tries to look at the evolution of John Kennedy from being a president who really was a ditherer on civil rights and over two and a half years of his term, he gradually became, you could arguable say, the first civil rights president because of his speech in June of 1963, where he first talked about — was the first president to talk about civil rights in moral terms.

Smiley: Mm-hmm.

Levingston: And he introduced the idea that they wanted to finally do some legislation to — to rid the country of segregation. But, it was a very long period that it took him to get there. From — from January of 1951 to June of 1963. So what I was trying to do is find out why and how Kennedy made that evolution. And the more I looked, the closer I looked, everywhere I looked, Martin Luther King popped up. And it was really his moral authority and his desire and ability to educate, to teach, and to guide John Kennedy along a moral path to an understanding that civil rights was a moral issue.

Smiley: And how did King do that successfully?

Levingston: Well, he did by a lot of persistence. He did it by never letting up. He spent a lot of time writing about it. He spent a lot of time in jail. He, you know, met with Kennedy several times. And just used the force of his character, really, to awaken the conscious, I think, of John Kennedy, and make him think more about the problem of civil rights and discrimination in our country.

Smiley: Why — Bobby is a character in this book to some extent, obviously, even though it’s about JFK and MLK. Why did Bobby get that so much more easily than his brother? And Bobby didn’t start out — Bobby didn’t start in the right place, either.

Levingston: Right.

Smiley: He had a transformation, as well. But it seems from my reading, you can disagree with me, you’re the expert here. My read is that Bobby was a better student than his brother was.

Levingston: Yeah, he was a better student for sure.

Smiley: Yeah.

Levingston: And he was also a more passionate person.

Smiley: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Levingston: And I think that’s what sort of drove Bobby. Bobby was the kind of guy, as we know, who wore his emotions on his sleeves, on his sleeve, and he responded more viscerally to things. And he — they’re two very different characters. And that’s sort of why they worked well together, I think. Because John was a guy who was pretty aloof, kept to himself, didn’t really tell people how he felt, and Bobby was the opposite. Bobby really, I think, was ahead of John Kennedy in understanding the need for empathy, and understanding the need for conscious. Bobby was an early person who, in the administration, who understood that the only way to push forward on civil rights was for the people at the very top, John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and all the others, to imagine what it was like to be in the shoes of a black person in America.

Smiley: Yeah.

Levingston: And he managed, I think, to convey that. And was influenced, also, by Martin Luther King.

Smiley: Sometimes when you’re trying to get the ear of the president, get some face time with the president, convince the president of your point of view, it helps to have some allies in the White House. Did King have any allies around JFK?

Levingston: Oh, he had allies. Yeah, there was Harris Wofford, who was a long-time civil rights advocate. He met King back in the 1950s in Montgomery.

Smiley: Went on to become a U.S. senator years later.

Levingston: Became a U.S. senator. But he was actually a very strong civil rights advocate within the White House. But he became frustrated by how slowly Kennedy was moving forward, and he left after about a year or so to go work in the Peace Corp. So King lost a strong advocate, which was really unfortunate. He also had Sargent Shriver, of that family, who was also a strong civil rights advocate, and was head of the civil rights division during the campaign. And the two of — those two guys really helped sort of lay the groundwork in a way, but they were also so fervent about civil rights that in some ways, they were marginalized within the White House as Kennedy was not ready to prepare — not ready to deal with civil rights just yet. They were sort of thought of as pushing too hard.

Smiley: Mm-hmm. One of the more disappointing points for me, realities about JFK, was the day that he sat in the White House watching the March on Washington on television, and really just kept, as you know, a hands-off approach on this until after it was over, and he saw how well it had gone, then he sends out an immediate invitation to all the Negro leaders to come to the White House, and we all see these photos of King, and everybody else in the White House hanging out with the president. But that was after JFK had sat this thing out. Didn’t say anything, didn’t do anything, wouldn’t be a part of it. And then he invites them to the White House thereafter. What did you come to figure out about and learn about that moment, and about that situation?

Levingston: Kennedy was very, very scared–

Smiley: Yeah.

Levingston: –about that march. He thought that there was going to be violence. And to his credit, I think though, he was concerned that he didn’t want the violence, because that would impair the progress towards civil rights legislation, which they were already trying to lay the groundwork for. And so, you know, they put in, as you know, a massive force of police and efforts to make sure that everything went as smoothly as it could. And John Kennedy watched the speeches, the whole event from his — on the television from the White House. But he did appreciate Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in a very powerful way. He watched it on TV, and you know, turned to the guy next to him and was just flabbergasted at how well King could deliver that speech, and did deliver that speech. And I think in a sense, Kennedy realized he had seen a moment that was for all time.

Smiley: And this is from a guy who’s not a bad orator himself.

Levingston: Exactly. [Laughs] In fact, he might have felt a little stood up.

Smiley: He knows a good speech when he hears one. Let me — I could talk to you for hours about this book, and I’m so excited that you did this, as I said at the top of this conversation. What — my extra question here. What is the abiding lesson for leaders today who find themselves on opposite shores?

Levingston: Yeah. That’s the question. And that’s a very good question. I think — I look at history as the story of today–

Smiley: Mm-hmm.

Levingston: –basically. And this book, in my mind, reminds us that the issues that they were dealing with are not gone today. We still are dealing with the issues of empathy, conscious, moral courage. The aspect of John Kennedy evolving and growing while in the White House is fundamental to any president who is in the White House. All presidents who enter don’t really know what they’re doing, nobody’s done this job before. So they have to grow. They have to develop. They have to mature. That’s fundamental. And Kennedy sort of set a standard for how to do that, at least on civil rights.

Smiley: Yeah.

Levingston: That can be a model for any politician today, for any president, at any time, I think.

Smiley: On civil rights, would you say that JFK was himself a profile in courage?

Levingston: I think by the end he was. He began his career and actually wrote “Profiles in Courage” almost with the wish that he could be one of those men who were able to stand up for a principle against a strong opposition and show the moral courage that’s necessary to make things progress. He — for most of his career, that was an illusion for him. He was trying to achieve that. And I think by the end of his administration, I think he did get there. And if you read “Profiles in Courage” today, you’ll see that there’s a lot of — the book is sort of like Kennedy almost talking to himself, urging himself forward. I want to be these kinds of guys, and in the end, I think he did achieve it, because, you know, as we know, civil rights, and civil rights progress is never an easy thing. It never goes in a straight line. And he took a big step forward, urged by Martin Luther King, and took a risk.

Smiley: As I said at the top of this conversation, it’s on everybody’s summer reading list, including mine. I think we owe Steven Levingston a debt for writing this book. It’s called “Kennedy and King: The President, The Pastor, and the Battle Over Civil Rights.” Mr. Levingston, thank you, sir, for doing it. Appreciate it.

Levingston: Great. Thank you so much.

Smiley: Glad to have you on, my friend. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. And as always, keep the faith.


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Last modified: July 25, 2017 at 1:48 pm