Not long 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 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 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 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 said.

Later, Jordan's parents hung Kennedy's portrait next to King's in their apartment.

Such portraits also were a common sight in black homes for Rev. Charles Booth.

"You always saw pictures of Jesus Christ, John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King," says Booth, 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 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."

But there was another side to Kennedy's stance.

Behind the scenes, his aides were urging King to end his 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.

Over the objections of Kennedy's brother and campaign manager, Robert Kennedy, who wanted to steer clear of the matter, an aide persuaded 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 Sen. 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 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.

"Civil rights simply was not a top priority," says Barrett.

"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.

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 Black History Month, his name has been seldom mentioned.

His successor, President Lyndon Johnson, receives credit for pushing the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, which ensured full citizenship for African-Americans.

Barrett 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.

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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.

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."