In October 1961, Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy took an after-lunch stroll through the elegant hallways of the White House residence. Their meeting that day was not official: it was not in the White House’s appointment book, and King had not been formally invited to discuss any sort of business. It was instead a guarded and rather stilted introduction for leaders of professed goodwill, in a political climate that remained extremely sensitive about race.

When the men passed the Lincoln Bedroom on their tour, King noticed the Emancipation Proclamation framed on the wall, and took the opportunity to raise, ever so delicately, the pressing issue of civil rights. King suggested something radical: a second Emancipation Proclamation, a proposal that would become the centerpiece of King’s lobbying campaign for the next year.

Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights scholar and biographer of King, recently sat down with Washington Monthly editor Haley Sweetland Edwards and explained this idea, what happened next, and how Kennedy’s choice on the matter altered King’s thinking and the course of the civil rights movement.

How did the off-the-record meeting between King and Kennedy come about that October evening?

The administration had summoned King to Washington for a meeting that day at the Justice Department, where officials insisted that one of his advisers was a dangerous communist subversive and that King had to get rid of him. King was still shaken by the demand when he went into the residence, not the West Wing, for his private meeting with the president. An appointment with the president would have been too controversial—King was still a radioactive figure then. He had gone to jail in the South; he’d been indicted and tried for violating segregation laws embedded in the constitutions of the southern states; and he’d been denounced by the same governors who’d supported the president. King’s White House visit was deliberately made intimate but hidden, and social. He was led upstairs to the residence for a private luncheon with President Kennedy and Jackie.

Jackie’s presence was a signal to King that he couldn’t say anything political that would ruin the moment—nothing about segregation or the sit-ins or the Freedom Rides that shook the country that year. They talked politely about their educations in Boston, their children, and that sort of thing.

Why, of all things, did King suggest a second Emancipation Proclamation?

When they were walking down the hallway, King saw the Emancipation Proclamation hanging on the wall in the Lincoln Bedroom. It provided an excuse for him to bring up politics in a positive way—to talk about the historic glow of Lincoln’s decision. King suggested that perhaps the president would consider issuing a second Emancipation Proclamation for January of 1963, on the 100th anniversary of the first one. Just as Lincoln had used an executive order to abolish slavery in the Southern states, King said, Kennedy could outlaw segregation.

King loved the idea of a second Emancipation Proclamation. He thought it would be easier for Kennedy than passing legislation—southerners had strangled every significant civil rights proposal in Congress for a century. At the same time, King hoped for an initiative by the president to make things easier for a struggling civil rights movement. King had not joined the Freedom Rides himself, nor yet accepted the personal sacrifice of a determined campaign to end segregation. He deeply hoped that if the president issued an executive order, there could be an easy way out for both of them.

What happened after that conversation outside the Lincoln Bedroom?

For the next six months, King and his lawyers drafted a second Emancipation Proclamation in Kennedy’s name. Then in May of 1962, when King was in Washington for a meeting to launch his Gandhi Society for Human Rights, he delivered a copy to the White House personally. It was a very fancy draft, bound in leather for the president, with copies for all the lower-level officials involved in civil rights. The cover letter said, “We ask that you proclaim all segregation statutes of all southern states to be contrary to the constitution, and that the full powers of your office be employed to void their enforcement.” The idea was to get the president to issue this second executive order on September 22, 1962—the hundredth anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued after the Civil War battle of Antietam.

How did Kennedy respond?

He didn’t. Not even by private letter. A while later, when King received an invitation to a White House luncheon for the archbishop of Cyprus, he declined. The standoff turned into an understated duel of manners. Kennedy was trying to keep things social, and King, by turning down the luncheon, was trying to signal that he could not be bought off. He had very real business that required attention.

For Kennedy, addressing segregation was a hornet’s nest. Because he knew that no Democrat could hope to be elected without the support of the solid South, it was never quite the right moment to become politically exposed on the issue of segregation.

During his 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy had promised action to reduce segregation wherever the powers of the federal government reached. He’d said he could end segregation in federally subsidized public housing “with the stroke of a pen”—in other words, without getting it through Congress. Once in office, however, he stalled. Supporters of civil rights actually mailed thousands of pens to the White House in a publicity campaign with a rare touch of humor, saying the president must have misplaced his pen.

Meanwhile, excruciating dramas over segregation continued after the Freedom Rides in the summer of ’61, which Kennedy said were embarrassing the United States. When Kennedy met with Premier Krushchev in Vienna, he said he had to endure criticism—from the Soviets, of all people, who had no freedom!—that America could not be free, judging by the way it treated its black citizens. By September of 1962, it still took a lethal riot and a year’s occupation by 20,000 U.S. soldiers to secure the token integration of Ole Miss by its first black student, James Meredith.

So the September anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation came and went without note from the White House?

This was a big disappointment to King, and a shock to King’s allies in Congress. King actually got them to write a letter saying that they’d understood the president was going to come to an event on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on September 22. Their fallback plan was to goad the White House into action on January 1, 1963, the 100th anniversary of the New Year’s Day on which the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.

Toward that end, after months of lobbying, King delivered another draft of the second Emancipation Proclamation to the White House on December 17, 1962. It was much shorter. By this point, he’d backtracked on asking the president to proclaim all the segregation laws null. Instead, this draft called only for the nation to celebrate the spirit and example of the Emancipation Proclamation throughout 1963, invoking Lincoln’s legacy behind President Kennedy.

How did Kennedy react to that draft?

It bounced around the White House for a bit—but remember, this was December ’62. Kennedy had just weathered the global threat of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and his administration was preoccupied with efforts to free the Bay of Pigs prisoners still in Cuba. He just didn’t respond to the draft proclamation, and missed the January 1 deadline, too.

After that, the White House announced a plan to host a social event for Lincoln’s birthday. From Kennedy’s point of view, it was a good solution—he could avoid the risk of issuing an executive order in a way that emphasized how much the emancipation tradition belonged to Republicans, not Democrats. He used Lincoln’s birthday as the occasion to invite many black dignitaries into the White House, which had been mostly off-limits except in token ways. The White House endured a great deal of negative press for inviting Sammy Davis Jr., who had a white wife. The idea of a mixed-race couple in the White House was still very controversial in 1963—which in itself is a pretty good sign of how blighted and benighted people were about race.

Did King go to the White House event for Lincoln’s birthday?

No. When Kennedy blew the New Year’s Day anniversary, King realized he could no longer count on Kennedy to take leadership on civil rights. Nor could he bear any longer to let young people—that is, college students, the Freedom Riders, the ones going to sit-ins and to jail—bear the whole burden of raising the issue of segregation. King was worried he was losing his window in history. He believed every movement was about political timing: you only get so much capital to spend, you only get so many chances. He thought the issue of desegregation was beginning to recede. He said southerners were rallying to the defense of segregation more strongly than supporters of the Brown [vs. Board of Education] decision were rallying to freedom. King felt they needed to change the climate of public opinion in their favor—and that meant taking a risk.

It was after Kennedy blew this second deadline that King realized he had nothing left to wait for. He had to “go for broke,” as he called it, and head down to Birmingham, Alabama, which was considered the toughest bastion of racism in the South. It’s hard for people to understand what a big leap that was for him, but one way of understanding it is that he didn’t tell his own father, or the board of his protest group, that he was going. He didn’t want them to try to stop him.

Would it be fair to say that Kennedy’s failure to embrace the second Emancipation Proclamation catalyzed a turning point in the civil rights movement?

King knew that Lincoln had issued the original Emancipation Proclamation in the middle of a war with lots of people dying. I think he realized that in order to get the president, or anyone, to act, what he had to do was go to Birmingham and essentially recreate those conditions—not a full-fledged civil war, but something that dramatized the moral imperative of the segregation issue in America.

In the end, King authorized not only high school students, but also elementary school students as young as six years old, to participate in a huge wave of demonstrations beginning May 2. That’s when Birmingham brought out the dogs and fire hoses and shocked the world. That’s when the issue of segregation really broke through people’s emotional barriers, not only in the United States but around the world. Up until that point, people had always found ways to evade the problem, to say it was someone else’s responsibility or that time would solve the problem. King had always known on some level that he’d have to join the students in the street, but like all of us who are human, he looked for an easier way until every door was closed and his conscience wouldn’t let him avoid it anymore.

Did Kennedy miss a major moral opportunity to do the right thing?

It’s historically accurate to say that Kennedy was not the vanguard figure in civil rights that popular history makes him out to be. It’s also true, however, that his fears were probably justified. Had he issued an executive order against segregation through a second Emancipation Proclamation, it probably would have weakened his administration without accomplishing anything. The southern states would have declared it illegal. They would have said he couldn’t declare a war measure since there wasn’t a war going on. And that would have made Kennedy look ineffectual, reduced his prestige, and perhaps cost him the next election. And then the next president would be even less likely to take on the entrenched power of the southern states. So unless you expect your political leaders to give up the prospect of holding office, you have to acknowledge that he had pretty good reason not to act on a second Emancipation Proclamation.

Kennedy did finally go on television and propose a civil rights bill in June of 1963, but by that time demonstrations of sympathy for what had happened in Birmingham had broken out in hundreds of cities across the country. At that point, Kennedy didn’t have any choice but to calm the fires of protest before they consumed his government.

King succeeded in getting Kennedy to act, just not in the way he’d intended.

People are always tempted to say that presidents and leaders should supply all the initiative, but in fact what worked in the civil rights movement was the combination of an aroused citizenry, which claimed rights and changed the political mood, and responsive national leaders. President Johnson later said that if, at the right time, King and the priests and ministers who were risking their lives down in Selma changed the political climate enough, then I can and will propose the voting rights bill. And he did. And that was really the pinnacle of cooperation between citizens taking responsibility for their government and government leaders responding to a political climate—a political climate created by the citizens themselves.

Click here to read more from our Jan/Feb 2013 cover package “Race, History, and Obama’s Second Term.”

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Taylor Branch and Haley Sweetland Edwards

Taylor Branch and Haley Sweetland Edwards collaborated on this article. Branch is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who first wrote for the Washington Monthly in 1969. His new book, "The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement," is being published in January 2013. Haley Sweetland Edwards is an editor of the Washington Monthly.