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The White House was the site of an unusual party a half century ago. It was held on Abraham Lincoln's birthday to note the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. And many of the guests were descendants of the people freed by Lincoln's historic document. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates looks back on that night and its significance.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: February 12, 1963, the White House gleamed with lights on that winter evening as hundreds of Negro guests made their way up the driveway and into the mansion's brilliant warmth. Inside, John and Jacqueline Kennedy circulated in a vast reception room, shaking hands and chatting with partygoers. Ninety-four-year-old Simeon Booker chronicled the evening in his new memoir "Shocking the Conscience," which covers his 65 years as a journalist.

SIMEON BOOKER: The guest list was a virtual who's who among American blacks.

BATES: The A-list invitees included elected and appointed officials, socialites, civic leaders, corporate executives, entertainers and a few athletes. Simeon Booker, often called the dean of Washington's black press corps, says that this reception actually was born of frustration.

BOOKER: Kennedy had been in office two years, but he still had not sent a civil rights bill to the Congress.

BATES: And black Americans were getting antsy. So Kennedy's advisers proposed a large reception to enable him to mingle with some of his important black constituents up close. About 1,000 invitations went out, and people accepted, even though they weren't sure where they were going to stay. In 1963, Washington's finest hotels were still closed to Negro guests. Photos from that evening show the Kennedys, relaxed and standing in a vortex of elegantly dressed black people as their Secret Service detail looked on tensely. Simeon Booker remembers the crush.

BOOKER: They swarmed around the president. They kept him so you couldn't move hardly.

BATES: The party was a resounding success, but one person everyone thought would be there wasn't. Martin Luther King sent his regrets. Historian Taylor Branch has written three award-winning biographies of Reverend King. His latest book, "The King Years," looks at critical moments in the civil rights movement. Branch says by the time of the party, King had spent two years trying to get John Kennedy to commit to a second emancipation proclamation.

On a visit with Kennedy a year earlier, he says, King had pointed out a framed copy of Lincoln's document as they walked through the White House, and he told the president:

TAYLOR BRANCH: If he could issue a proclamation on his own powers to end slavery back during the Civil War, I wish you would consider doing the same thing for segregation now - issuing a presidential emancipation proclamation emancipating us from segregation as incompatible with America's commitment to equality.

BATES: He got no response. Branch says King finally realized he couldn't rely on Kennedy or other politicians to end segregation. He was going to have to push on and risk being jailed with his foot soldiers for protesting their second-class citizenship. So King and fellow civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph stayed away from the glitzy birthday party for Abraham Lincoln. Simeon Booker:

BOOKER: They had no interest in attending a social event while younger blacks, including hundreds of college students, were being arrested in the South for violating Jim Crow laws.

BATES: The lunch counter sit-ins by students in black colleges were making national news.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: More than 1,500 Negros were jailed over a period of several days. Most of them students from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical Institute and from Bennett College.

BATES: In fact, at the very moment the White House party was being held, King was already drafting plans for what would become the Birmingham Children's Crusade a few months later. That spring, black students from middle and high schools in Birmingham would be brutalized by the city's infamous police. The media showed them being battered with high-powered streams from fire hoses and set upon by police dogs as they protested segregation. It was a turning point in the country's sympathies, and the president knew it. In June, he addressed the nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: Next week, I shall ask the Congress of the United States to act, to make a commitment it has not fully made in this century: The proposition that race has no place in American life or law.

BATES: Kennedy wouldn't live to see it, but this was the beginning of King's desired second emancipation. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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