Less than three weeks before the 1960 presidential election, thirty-one-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested at a sit-in at Rich’s department store in Atlanta. That day would lead to the first night King ever spent in jail, and the time when King’s family most feared for his life.
A previous $25 traffic ticket was used as an excuse to keep King in custody after the other sit-in participants had been freed—and to sentence the young minister to four months of hard labor at the Georgia State Prison in Reidsville, where Black inmates worked on chain gangs overseen by violent white guards. While King’s imprisonment was decried as a moral scandal in some quarters and celebrated in others, for the two presidential candidates, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, it was the ultimate October surprise: an emerging and controversial civil rights leader was languishing behind bars, and the two campaigns raced to decide whether, and how, to respond.
Stephen Kendrick and Paul Kendrick’s Nine Days tells the incredible story of what happened next. In 1960, the civil rights movement was growing increasingly inventive and energized while white politicians favored the corrosive tactics of silence and stalling. But an audacious team in the Kennedy campaign’s Civil Rights Section decided to act. In a contest in which Black voters seemed poised to split their votes between the candidates, the leaders of the CRS—the pioneering Black journalist Louis Martin, the future Pennsylvania senator Harris Wofford, and the Peace Corps founder Sargent Shriver—convinced Kennedy to agitate for King’s release, sometimes even going behind the Kennedy brothers’ backs in their quest to secure his freedom. Their actions over the next nine days would end up deciding one of the closest elections in American history.
Based on new interviews with firsthand witnesses and extensive archival research, Nine Days recounts the first time King refused bail and came to terms with the dangerous course of his mission to change a nation. At once a story of electoral machinations, moral courage, and, ultimately, the triumph of a future president’s better angels, Nine Days is a gripping tale with important lessons for our own time.