JFK holds complex place in black history
Politician played both sides in civil rights, is remembered fondly
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.
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."
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