Sargent Shriver, the Peace Corps, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Posted by Peter Hessler
Sargent Shriver and John F. Kennedy greet Peace Corps volunteers, 1962.
R. Sargent Shriver died today, just after the holiday to honor Martin Luther King, Jr., and not long before the fiftieth anniversary of the Peace Corps’ founding. Shriver would have had something to say about both occasions. One of his defining moments occurred in 1960, when he worked on the Presidential campaign for his brother-in-law, John F. Kennedy. Initially, Kennedy avoided expressing support for King, because he worried about losing white votes in the South. In October of that year, King was arrested after an Atlanta sit-in, and he was threatened with a jail sentence on trumped up charges. Coretta Scott King was terrified that her husband would be murdered while in custody-she was pregnant at the time-and she telephoned Harris Wofford, a law professor at Notre Dame University. Wofford called Shriver, who said, “Give me her number and get me out of jail if I’m arrested for speeding.” He knew that Kennedy was at an airport hotel in Chicago, preparing to leave for another campaign stop.
But once Shriver got to Kennedy, he was smart enough to wait. Realizing that the candidate’s advisors would oppose any gesture of support, he kept silent until Kenneth O’Donnell, one of the top aides, went to the bathroom. “Why don’t you telephone Mrs. King and give her your sympathy?” Shriver said, when he was alone with Kennedy. “Negroes don’t expect everything will change tomorrow, no matter who’s elected. But they do want to know whether you care. If you telephone Mrs. King, they will know you understand and will help. You will reach their hearts and give support to a pregnant woman who is afraid her husband will be killed.”
“That’s a good idea,” said Kennedy. “Why not? Do you have her number? Get her on the phone.”
By the time O’Donnell made it off the toilet, the damage was done. Bobby Kennedy later yelled at Shriver for taking such a risk, but even he followed through on his brother’s gesture, calling key officials in Georgia. Within a day, King was released, and he told reporters that Senator Kennedy deserved full credit: “For him to be that courageous shows that he is really acting upon principle and not expediency.” It proved to be a crucial moment in a close campaign, as black voters turned out in large numbers to support Kennedy. (This story is recounted in Stanley Meisler’s new book about the Peace Corps, “When the World Calls,” to be published next month.)
Shriver was a deceptively effective politician. He never won an election, and he was overshadowed by the Kennedys, who discouraged him from seeking office at key moments. Certainly he made an unusual figure in that family. “We’re nicer than the Kennedys,” Shriver’s mother once told a reporter. According to Shriver’s biographer, he was still a virgin when, at the age of thirty-seven, and after five long years of courtship, he married Eunice Kennedy. Bobby Kennedy referred to him as a Boy Scout. Others in the family called him the House Communist. When Kennedy appointed him as the first director of the Peace Corps, many believed it was a sure ticket to obscurity. But Shriver built the agency with remarkable speed; less than six months after the Peace Corps was founded, it sent its first volunteers to Ghana. Shriver proved to be even better at getting publicity. Volunteer assignments were announced in newspapers across America, and even minor staff positions were noted in The New York Times. In 1961, the agency’s first year, The New Yorker published no fewer than five cartoons about the Peace Corps.
Nowadays, former volunteers tend to be wistful about those early days. Shriver left the Peace Corps after only five years-he had instituted a rule that nobody should exceed that span of time at the agency-and he went on to help shape a number of other prominent organizations, including the Special Olympics, Head Start, and VISTA. Meanwhile, the Peace Corps lost popularity during the Vietnam years, and it’s never fully recovered. Today there are barely more than half as many volunteers worldwide as there were during Shriver’s final year. Recently there’s been a successful push for more funding (I wrote about this in the magazine last month), but even the Peace Corps’s staunchest supporters tend to believe that the agency needs major reform. Other programs like Teach for America enjoy much more attention, and despite a half century of work, it’s hard to define exactly how the Peace Corps has affected both the world and American society. In a nation that tends to celebrate momentous events and sweeping change, the Peace Corps has usually been about quieter, more personal interactions. But this was something that Sargent Shriver always understood. As director, he sent writers all around the world to create detailed reports about the various Peace Corps programs, and at bedtime he loved reading about the experiences of individual volunteers. These moments can be hard to capture and communicate; they have a quicksilver quality and sometimes they’re tinged with sadness. In 1963, the day after the funeral of President Kennedy, a beggar approached Donna Shalala, who would someday become the secretary of health and human services, but who at that time was a Peace Corps volunteer in Iran. “No, I don’t have any money,” Shalala said, preëmpting the request.
“I don’t want money,” the beggar said. “I just want to tell you how sorry I am that your young president died.”
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