President John F. Kennedy played a pivotal role in black history as the journey for equality has unfolded. Not that many years ago, three portraits hung in thousands of African-American homes, a visual tribute to men who had helped black people navigate the long journey to equality.
There was Jesus, who represented unconditional hope, strength and love. There was Martin Luther King Jr., who personified the moral crusade that ended legal segregation. And then there was President John F. Kennedy.
Kennedy's inclusion may seem puzzling, considering that his civil rights legacy has undergone substantial reassessment since his Nov. 22, 1963, assassination. But a look at why so many black people revered him then - and why younger generations have largely forgotten his civil rights work - shows that even 50 years later, Kennedy holds an important but complicated place in black history.
"We're still trying to figure it out," says John Mack, a longtime civil rights activist who was fighting segregation in Atlanta when Kennedy was elected president in 1960. Mack says that we can only speculate on what Kennedy might have done for civil rights had he not been killed. "It's a question we're wrestling with and cannot answer," Mack says.
For many older African-Americans, Kennedy was a president who sympathized with the black struggle like no other before him. They recall him speaking eloquently against segregation despite resistance from Southern racists in his own Democratic party. Some even feel that his support for civil rights was one reason he was killed, even though racial motives are not prominent among the many theories about Kennedy's death.
Yes, these black folks say, Kennedy may have moved reluctantly on civil rights. Yes, he may have been motivated by the need for votes more than racial justice - but they speak of the effort he made.
"People say he should have moved faster, but he's dead because of the pace that he did move," says Rev. Shirley Jordan, a pastor and community activist in her native Richmond, Va. She was 13 when Kennedy was shot in Dallas. She heard the news in school, she recalls, but especially felt the impact when she got home: "My mother cried as though it was her child who had died." "That was just the tone, the aura. There was a big cloud over the whole black community," Jordan says. "When you look at the pictures of the funeral, you see so many black people out there."
Later, Jordan's parents hung Kennedy's portrait next to King's in their housing project apartment. Such portraits also were a common sight in black homes for Rev. Charles Booth, who grew up in Baltimore. "You always saw pictures of Jesus Christ, John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King," says Booth, now a pastor in Columbus, Ohio. "You could go in an average home and see a picture of JFK on the wall. In the minds of most black people at the time, he was a friend to the African-American community."
One reason why, Booth says, was Kennedy's relationship with King - though that, too, was complicated. They first met in June 1960. Kennedy, then a senator from Massachusetts, would soon win the Democratic presidential nomination. King had become a national figure for leading the victorious bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., that ignited the civil rights movement.
As a Democrat, running against Republican Richard Nixon (at the time, many influential blacks, including Jackie Robinson, were Republicans), Kennedy faced some difficult racial calculus. The South, where Jim Crow kept black people in a second-class status, was ruled by Democrats. To win the presidency, Kennedy needed white Southern Democrats, and many of them hated King, whom they saw as a threat to their way of life.
In a speech soon after meeting King, Kennedy spoke of the "moving examples of moral courage" shown by civil rights protesters. Their peaceful demonstrations, he said, were not "to be lamented, but a great sign of responsibility, of good citizenship, of the American spirit." Referencing the growing "sit-in" movement, in which black customers demanded service at white-only restaurants, Kennedy said: "It is in the American tradition to stand up for one's rights - even if the new way to stand up for one's rights is to sit down."
But there was another side to Kennedy's stance. Behind the scenes, his aides were urging King to end his nonviolent protests, according to historian Taylor Branch in his authoritative civil rights chronicle "Parting the Waters." Since the protests were being suppressed by Democrats, they made it harder for Kennedy to get black votes in the North. But if Kennedy criticized the suppression, he would lose white votes in the South.
Declining to heed Kennedy's men and curtail protests, King was arrested with a group of students at an Atlanta sit-in on Oct. 19, 1960, scant weeks before the excruciatingly close election. King refused to post bail. He remained behind bars as the Ku Klux Klan marched through Atlanta streets and Kennedy and Nixon held their final televised debate.
Authorities produced a 5-month-old traffic ticket from a neighboring county, and King was sentenced to four months' hard labor. By the next morning King was in a maximum-security prison. Many feared he would soon be killed. Over the objections of Kennedy's brother and campaign manager, Robert Kennedy, who wanted to steer clear of the matter, an aide managed to convince the candidate to place a sympathetic call to King's pregnant wife, Coretta.
News of Kennedy's call was leaked to reporters. Yet King was still in jail - until Robert Kennedy called the judge. Suddenly, bail was granted and King was freed.
The story of the Kennedys' involvement made headlines in black newspapers nationwide. King issued a statement saying he was "deeply indebted to Senator Kennedy," although he remained nonpartisan. The Kennedy campaign printed tens of thousands of pamphlets describing the episode, and distributed them in black churches across the country on the Sunday before the election.
Kennedy, who got 78 percent of the black vote, won the election by one of the narrowest margins in U.S. history. "In an election that close," says Villanova University professor David Barrett, "you could make a case that Kennedy's call to Coretta mattered enough to win." Booth, the Ohio pastor, has pondered Kennedy's motivations. "I don't know if a large number of African-Americans thought critically about Kennedy's shrewdness," Booth says. "He was very much courting that Southern vote. Politicians do what politicians do. The political reality may not always be the ethical reality."
As president, Kennedy's top priority was foreign policy. There were enormous Cold War challenges - from the Soviet Union and Vietnam to Cuba, site of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and of a crisis over Soviet missiles that threatened to trigger nuclear war.
Meanwhile, at home, the boiling civil rights movement could not be ignored. "Freedom Riders" seeking to integrate Southern bus lines were mercilessly beaten. Whites rioted to prevent the black student James Meredith from enrolling at the University of Mississippi; two people were killed after Kennedy sent in troops to ensure Meredith's admission.
In Birmingham, Ala., police loosed clubs, dogs and fire hoses on peaceful protesters, and a church bombing killed four black girls. Images of the violence shamed America before the world. As blood flowed, Kennedy moved cautiously toward civil rights legislation.
Publicly, Kennedy's administration was reluctant to intervene in the Southern violence unless federal law was being flouted. Privately, Kennedy's men urged protest leaders to slow down and avoid confrontation. Many saw the administration's stance as aloof or even helpless. Earlier, after Kennedy had disowned proposals that were part of the Democrats' 1960 campaign platform, NAACP president Roy Wilkins said Kennedy was offering "a cactus bouquet."
Mack, the civil rights activist, was at the Democratic convention where those promises were made. He recalls being highly frustrated with Kennedy's pace once he became president. "We were deeply committed young people who were out to change the system. Down in the South we were fighting segregation in all its original ugliness," Mack says. But amid the frustration, Mack says, there was recognition among movement leaders that Kennedy was politically constrained. "He had to deal with some segregationists," Mack says.
Kennedy needed some of those segregationists to advance his foreign policy agenda, says Barrett, the Villanova professor. He also had to think about reelection, and not alienating white Southern voters. "Civil rights simply was not a top priority," says Barrett, who studies the Kennedy administration and teaches a course on the civil rights movement. "He was busy with so many other issues, especially foreign policy issues, he didn't give it the kind of energy and attention that we might wish in retrospect," he says.
Civil rights was a top priority - in a different way - for J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI. Hoover believed the growing civil rights movement was under Communist influence and a threat to national security. He closely monitored King and others in the movement with surveillance, informants and wiretaps. In 1963, "the FBI assigned full enemy status to King," Branch wrote, noting that even "after receiving intelligence that someone was trying to kill him, the Bureau would refuse to warn King as it routinely warned other potential targets."
Yet Kennedy still worked with King, even as his FBI tried to tear King down. In June 1963, King had a private meeting with Kennedy at the White House. During a stroll through the Rose Garden, the president told King that he was under surveillance. "He was playing both sides of the issue," Barrett says. A few minutes after Kennedy's warning, he and King joined a meeting with other civil rights leaders. The March on Washington had been announced, and Kennedy had hinted publicly that he was against it. Someone in the meeting asked if that was true.
"We want success in the Congress, not a big show on the Capitol," Kennedy replied, according to "Parting the Waters." In the end, the peaceful mass march made headlines around the world. Kennedy watched it on television. Immediately afterward, he met with march leaders in the White House, where they discussed civil rights legislation that was finally inching through Congress. The leaders pressed Kennedy to strengthen the legislation; the president listed many obstacles.
Some believe Kennedy preferred to wait until after the 1964 election to push the issue. Yet in his public speeches, he spoke more and more about justice for all. La Trice Washington, a professor at Otterbein College in Ohio, says some of Kennedy's rhetoric went "well beyond sympathetic." As an example, she cites a graduation speech at San Diego State College on June 11, 1963. "Our goal must be an educational system in the spirit of the declaration of independence - a system in which all are created equal," Kennedy said. "A system in which every child, whether born a banker's son in a Long Island mansion, or a Negro sharecropper's son in an Alabama cotton field, has every opportunity for an education that his abilities and character deserve."
Those were dangerous words, Washington says. "That was not acceptable language by the dominant culture," she says. "That puts you on the front lines. It puts you on the line not only for political retribution, but for death."
Fifty years later, except for the aging few who recall the portraits on the walls, Kennedy is not widely remembered as a civil rights icon. During this past February's Black History Month, his name was seldom mentioned.
His successor, President Lyndon Johnson, receives credit for hammering through the monumental Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, which ensured full citizenship for African-Americans. "Kennedy was sort of remade after his death," says Allan Saxe, a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington who has researched Kennedy and civil rights. "He did speak on civil rights, he talked about it, but he never got much legislation through."
Barrett, the Villanova professor, says Kennedy was moving, however slowly, toward a "full steam ahead" approach to civil rights - and then he was killed. "I don't think he ever developed an emotional or gut level commitment on this issue. He's memorialized that way, but I don't think he got there," Barrett says.
Today, the hard facts of history can be unforgiving. But for black people who lived that history, a cautious hand extended can feel like an embrace. "When I think about his compassion for people, I also think about Martin Luther King," says Jordan, the Richmond pastor. She believes Kennedy is a martyr for black people, "because a martyr is someone who died for what they believed."
Mack, the civil rights activist, admires him still. Whether Kennedy might have achieved anything substantial on civil rights - "that's the unknown," he acknowledges. Still, he adds, "Being as young as I was, I saw him as a breath of fresh air. Youthful, dynamic, a new visionary type of leader. I felt a lot of optimism and hope. I felt that in time, if we kept up our advocacy, he would deal with issues important to our people."