Audiotape portrays King as restrained in praise of Kennedys

King greeted Adlai Stevenson and President Kennedy in December 1962.
Associated Press files
King greeted Adlai Stevenson and President Kennedy in December 1962.

NASHVILLE — As the nation reflects on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., an audiotape of an interview with the civil rights leader discovered in a Tennessee attic sheds light on a phone call John F. Kennedy made to King’s wife more than 50 years ago.

Historians generally agree that Kennedy’s phone call to Coretta Scott King, expressing concern over her husband’s arrest in October 1960 — and Robert Kennedy’s work behind the scenes to get King released — helped JFK win the White House that fall.

King himself, although appreciative, was not as quick to credit the Kennedys alone with getting him out of jail, according to a previously unreleased portion of the interview with the civil rights leader days after Kennedy’s election.


‘‘The Kennedy family did have some part . . . in the release,’’ King says in the recording, which was discovered in 2012. ‘‘But I must make it clear that many other forces worked to bring it about also.’’

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A copy of the original recording will be played for visitors at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis for a ‘‘King Day’’ event Monday.

King was arrested a few weeks before the presidential election at an Atlanta sit-in. Charges were dropped, but King was held for allegedly violating probation for an earlier traffic offense and transferred to the Georgia State Prison in Reidsville, Ga.

The Kennedys intervened, and King was released. Their intervention won the support of black voters who helped give Kennedy the winning edge in several states, historians say.

Despite their help, however, King was careful not to give them too much credit.

Associated Press