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 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.