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JFK holds complex place in black history

Politician played both sides in civil rights, is remembered fondly

Published: Monday, Aug. 31 2015 8:45 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this Nov. 21, 1963 file photo, President John F. Kennedy walks past young bystanders during his visit to San Antonio. FILE - In this Nov. 21, 1963 file photo, President John F. Kennedy walks past young bystanders during his visit to San Antonio. "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 in a graduation speech at San Diego State College on June 11, 1963. "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." (Associated Press)

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.

President Kennedy stands with a group of leaders of the March on Washington at the White House in August 1963. (Associated Press) President Kennedy stands with a group of leaders of the March on Washington at the White House in August 1963. (Associated Press)

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.

FILE - In this Sept. 18, 1963 file photo, author James Baldwin, right, and Bayard Rustin, deputy director of the March on Washington, talk about civil rights incidents in Alabama during a news conference in New York. The two civil rights leaders called upon President John F. Kennedy to use troops to FILE - In this Sept. 18, 1963 file photo, author James Baldwin, right, and Bayard Rustin, deputy director of the March on Washington, talk about civil rights incidents in Alabama during a news conference in New York. The two civil rights leaders called upon President John F. Kennedy to use troops to "break the hold" of Gov. George Wallace, otherwise "there will be rioting in Alabama" which will affect the entire nation. The arm band displayed was to be worn at a rally scheduled in New York on Sept. 22, 1963 "to protest the brutal murder of Negro children in Birmingham." (Associated Press)

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.

FILE - In this Dec. 19, 1961 file photo, President John F. Kennedy leaves the White House in Washington to Andrews Air Force Base for flight to Palm Beach, Fla. en route to the bedsite of his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, who is hospitalized after suffering as stroke. Kennedy's civil rights legacy has undergone substantial reassessment since his 1963 assassination. Half a century later, FILE - In this Dec. 19, 1961 file photo, President John F. Kennedy leaves the White House in Washington to Andrews Air Force Base for flight to Palm Beach, Fla. en route to the bedsite of his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, who is hospitalized after suffering as stroke. Kennedy's civil rights legacy has undergone substantial reassessment since his 1963 assassination. Half a century later, "We're still trying to figure it out," says one longtime civil rights activist. (Associated Press)

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.

FILE - In this Nov. 22, 1963 file photo, women burst into tears outside Parkland Hospital upon hearing that President John F. Kennedy died from the shooting by an assassin while riding in a motorcade in Dallas. Looking at why so many black people revered him then - and why younger generations have largely forgotten his civil rights work now - shows that even 50 years later, Kennedy holds a complicated but pivotal place in black history. (Associated Press) FILE - In this Nov. 22, 1963 file photo, women burst into tears outside Parkland Hospital upon hearing that President John F. Kennedy died from the shooting by an assassin while riding in a motorcade in Dallas. Looking at why so many black people revered him then - and why younger generations have largely forgotten his civil rights work now - shows that even 50 years later, Kennedy holds a complicated but pivotal place in black history. (Associated Press)

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.

FILE - In this Aug. 8, 1962 file photo, Thurgood Marshall appears before a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee in Washington for a third hearing on his nomination as a judge of the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Marshall, a former NAACP lawyer, was appointed to the bench by President John F. Kennedy in October 1961. He became Solicitor General in 1965 and the first African-American Supreme Court judge in 1967, both under the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. (Associated Press) FILE - In this Aug. 8, 1962 file photo, Thurgood Marshall appears before a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee in Washington for a third hearing on his nomination as a judge of the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Marshall, a former NAACP lawyer, was appointed to the bench by President John F. Kennedy in October 1961. He became Solicitor General in 1965 and the first African-American Supreme Court judge in 1967, both under the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. (Associated Press)

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.

FILE - In this Jan. 14, 1963 file photo, President John F. Kennedy speaks in the House Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington during his State of the Union report to a joint session of Congress with Vice President Lyndon Johnson sitting behind him. Kennedy's civil rights legacy has undergone substantial reassessment since his Nov. 22, 1963, assassination. His successor, President Johnson, receives credit for hammering through the monumental Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, which ensured full citizenship for African-Americans. (Associated Press) FILE - In this Jan. 14, 1963 file photo, President John F. Kennedy speaks in the House Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington during his State of the Union report to a joint session of Congress with Vice President Lyndon Johnson sitting behind him. Kennedy's civil rights legacy has undergone substantial reassessment since his Nov. 22, 1963, assassination. His successor, President Johnson, receives credit for hammering through the monumental Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, which ensured full citizenship for African-Americans. (Associated Press)

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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