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The Presidents and Mrs. King

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JASON REED / AP

President Bush speaks at the Coretta Scott King funeral

It has often been remarked that there was a kind of bond between Coretta Scott King and Jackie Kennedy, two young widows of martyred men who themselves would make history, both by accident and design. Having played her part largely behind the scenes when her husband was alive, Mrs. King went on to become a symbol of his legacy after his death, to the point that upon her passing last week she became the first woman and the first African American to lie in State in the Georgia capitol. At a funeral of 10,000 mourners, including four presidents, President Bush praised her as "one of the most admired women of all timeů.Having loved a leader, she became a leader, and when she spoke, Americans listened closely."

There was praise for her pursuit of justice, her courage and grace, her embrace of peace in the face of cruel force. "As a great movement in history took shape," President Bush said, "her dignity was a daily rebuke to the pettiness and cruelty of segregation."

But then, there was something more to remember. "I don't want us to forget that there's a woman in there," said President Clinton, standing in front of her casket beneath a mountain of flowers. Not just a symbol and a role model, he said, though she surely was that, but a woman who "lived and breathed and got angry and got hurt and had dreams and disappointments." And so it's worth remembering that of all the moments when she stood at history's hinge, one of the most important was when she was most human, most vulnerable, six months pregnant and wondering about the odds of her husband surviving a four month sentence of hard labor in a rough Georgia jail.

The moment came in October of 1960, when Martin Luther King led a student sit in of Atlanta's segregated snack bars and restaurants. He was arrested at the Magnolia Room restaurant, along with more than 50 other people. But while they were all released on bail, Dr. King was held on a technicality — a traffic violation, no less — and sentenced to hard time at the State penitentiary in Reidsville.

It was reasonable to fear that he would not come out alive, given the atmosphere of boiling violence at the time. And so as his friends, and his wife, anguished, so did the two men running for president, in an election just a few weeks away in which few issues were as crucial, and hard to calculate, as the course of race relations in America.

Writing about the campaign when it was all over, Richard Nixon admitted that there was "one incidentůwhich, in retrospect, might have been avoided or at least better handled." Despite a civil rights record he was proud of, he did not have any comment on the case. Like John Kennedy, Nixon was desperately trying to figure out how to attract northern black voters without alienating southern white ones. And so he decided the best course was to say nothing.

Kennedy's political strategists were torn over the right response. More than one southern Democratic governor had warned them even before the arrest that an endorsement of Dr. King's crusade would cost them the state in the election. But Kennedy's brother in law, Sargent Shriver, got him alone in a room and urged the candidate to just pick up the phone. As the story has been told by historians from Theodore White to Taylor Branch and many in between, Jack Kennedy called Coretta Scott King to tell her of his concern and offer to help in any way he could. "I know this must be very hard for you, and I just wanted you to know that I was thinking about you and Dr. King. If there is anything I can do to help, please feel free to call on me." Mrs. King replied that she'd be grateful for anything he could do. The next day his brother Bobby was calling the sentencing judge to seal a deal that would end with King's release.

In the final heat of the campaign, most people in the country had little idea what had occurred. But Coretta King, alight with gratitude, told her family and friends, who told others, who spread the word. Dr. King's father, Martin Luther King Sr., himself a renowned Baptist preacher, had come out a few weeks before for Vice President Nixon, mainly on religious grounds. But this episode was enough too convince him that he could vote for a Catholic candidate after all. "Because this man was willing to wipe the tears from my daughter (in-law's) eyes" he said, "I've got a suitcase of votes, and I'm going to take them to Mr. Kennedy and dump them in his lap."

Kennedy's campaign meanwhile printed perhaps a million pamphlets recounting the candidate's support for the civil rights leader and his family, which they handed out in front of black churches all around the country. Two days before the vote, Dr. King himself went on the radio to praise Kennedy and denounce the Republicans for "disagreement and double-talk." It was not quite an endorsement-but it was enough.

In the end, Kennedy carried the race by barely 0.2% of the vote. Had 4500 voters in Illinois changed their minds, the state would have flipped-and that state had more than a quarter million African American voters. In several other states the swing of the black vote, which had supported the Republicans heavily in 1956, to the democrats was enough to determine the outcome of the race.

Mrs. Kennedy, in other words, would likely not have become first lady were it not for a call that her husband made, in a moment of calculated decency, to Mrs. King. Both women would come to know all too well the costs of leadership. After her husband's death, Mrs. King seemed to draw on his strength, and make it her own. "Coretta had every right to count the costs and step back from the struggle," President Bush said. "But she decided that her children needed more than a safe home; they needed an America that upheld their equality and wrote their rights into law." Because of the legacy she sustained, he said, "millions of children they would never meet are now living in a better, more welcoming country."