JFK holds complex place in black history

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.
Associated Press
Feb 24, 2013


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 now — 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 if he had 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 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."



danbury dad

JFK used the black population of the country just as most of the liberal politicians today still use them .Only for votes. Their policies enacted after being elected are groomed to keep the black populace dependant on the government thus securing future votes. It is a circle that has been going on since the civil war. Remember it is not what a politician says before they are elected but what they enact once they are. Lets give them all phones but still not give them work and maybe they will vote for me. unfortunatly that mentality still works in america.


Awesome. You are echoing Romney's 47% comment. Personally, I am thankful that you, and others like you, are unable or unwilling to learn from the 2012 election, as it assures that Democrats will continue to win the popular vote in national elections (as we have done in 5 of the past 6 presidential elections). You do know that it was Bush who instituted the free cell phone program, right?


How much low income and minority housing is located in and around Hyannis Port?


Nice try. I think it's common knowledge that it's the Republican party who caters to the elite.


coasterfan writes:

You "'think' it's common knowledge,"? LOL.

Why is it that seven of the ten richest members of Congress are Democrats?

Answer the question.

The Big Dog's back

What does that have to do with anything? Aren't they smart money managers?


Answer the question:

How much low income and minority housing is located in and around Hyannis Port?


"Answer the question:"

That's rich coming from you. Someone who NEVER wants to actually answer a question. LOL!!!!!!!!!

Jealous pooh that a dem has more millions than you the neo-CON?




double post


Moderators have removed this comment because it contained Personal attacks (including: name calling, presumption of guilt or guilt by association, insensitivity, or picking fights).

The Big Dog's back

Best thing that ever happened to the Democratic Party was when they purged the southern white racists from the party. Gee, where did these racists go? Why of course, the Repub party.


Racism? In response, that's probably why there are such a large number of black families living near the Kennedy Compound right?

Over-the-yrs. haven't the Kennedys encouraged with their own money, multi-racial low-income housing units in and around Hyannis Port?


Moderators have removed this comment because it contained Personal attacks (including: name calling, presumption of guilt or guilt by association, insensitivity, or picking fights).

thinkagain's picture

AGAIN with the race card? Predictable as rain. I'm inclined to feel deep pity for anyone who's obsessed with a single word. Your entire deck has been nothing but race cards.


Just as predictable as you complaing about race when that is what the article is about!

The Big Dog's back

Thanks deertracker. Obviously neverthinks didn't read the article.


Yet whenevr the word "gay" comes up, you pull out your bigot card every time. If you are going to talk the talk, then walk the walk.

Truth or Dare

I understand the Bush Compound (one anyways) is in Kennebunkport, ME. and is the Summer home of former U.S. Pres. Geo. W. H. Bush. His maternal grandfather bought and built the property and he came to own it in the 80's, just prior to becoming the Vice President and was used by both Bush Presidents to entertain foreign dignitaries/leaders.

Demographics (2010 Census): Racial Make-up;
98.0% White
0.2% African American
0.1% Native American Indian
0.7% Asian
0.3% Other Races
0.7% two or more Races
0.9% Latino or Hispanic

I'm left wondering if the public has access? Or, is it also like the gated compound of Geo. W. Bush, gated, off limits and safeguarded by the Secret Service? Compliments of the American Taxpayers of course!

Racism/Bigotry is what it is, IGNORANCE IN ACTION and having no political let alone religious boundaries.


Where were Presidents GHW and GW Bush mentioned in article?

Many Northerners were as bigoted as their Southern counterparts, but their hypocrisy and amnesia allows them the comfort to remember otherwise.

Lota riots in Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland and elsewhere. The sanctimonious Yankees just like to forget about them.


The Big Dog's back

When called out on something move to something else.


Yea, there were no bigots in the North and that's why there were no "race riots" LMAO.

Answer the question:

How much low income and minority housing is located in and around Hyannis Port?

2cents's picture

So in their taxpayer supported policies regarding racial equality, the Kennedy crime family are also adherents to the policy of NIMBY?

How hypocritical is that?

2cents's picture

LOL, I wanted to be the first to post on this when I woke because there were none but thought I would see how the stroy unfolded!


Thank you Abe Lincoln for the income tax. Let US pay for what selfish people did.