A dual biography chronicles three years of upheaval in the civil rights movement.
Journalist Levingston (Little Demon in the City of Light: A True Story of Murder and Mesmerism in Belle Epoque Paris, 2014, etc.), the nonfiction book editor of the Washington Post, synthesizes voluminous material—biographies, memoirs, histories, and archival documents—to produce a comprehensive examination of the relationship between John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. That relationship was fraught even before the two men met in secret in 1960: Kennedy had decided to run for president and hoped for an endorsement from King, already a major figure in the fight for racial equality. “King had much to offer Kennedy,” writes the author, but Kennedy had little but promises to offer King. “He did not have the grasp and the comprehension of the depths and dimensions of the problem,” King recalled. Moreover, Kennedy was reluctant to upset Southern Democrats by aligning himself with King. Distilling many sources, Levingston wavers in his analysis of Kennedy’s commitment to civil rights: some sources hail him as a man “sympathetic to the suffering of others” with “a reflexive dislike of unfairness.” Others saw him as a political opportunist, “deaf” to “cries for freedom,” feigning interest in order to win the black vote but ignoring civil rights unless it directly benefited his own agenda. Although Levingston insists that Kennedy was “a man of intellect and compassion,” some evidence he presents supports the idea that the Kennedy brothers saw civil rights as the “moral issue” that would burnish the president’s image. A stronger argument would have helped to reconcile this contradiction, which persists throughout the book. Similarly, Levingston presents Robert Kennedy as sometimes passionately sympathetic to civil rights and sometimes harshly impatient of King’s pleas for help from the White House. The author does make a case for the brothers’ naiveté, calling them “novices plunged into a maelstrom far more complicated than they realized at first.” Not surprisingly, King was repeatedly frustrated in his dealings with them.
A well-documented narrative that would benefit from more consistent analysis.