In the commemoration of fifty years since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, journalists have spent a great deal of time ascertaining the president’s legacy.
In addition to remembering his pivotal role in reshaping the Cold War in West Berlin, dealing with the Cuban missile crisis, attempting to resist the rush to engage ground troops in Vietnam, and pushing the nation in the space race, President Kennedy was also forced to grapple with the fight for civil rights being waged by activists across the South.
Some have viewed Kennedy’s relationship to the movement with rose-colored glasses, elevating his role in moving legislative change forward, or stating that after his death, black people saw him as a transformational figure.
In his expansive coverage of the fifty-year commemoration, journalist Tom Brokaw in conversation with civil rights luminary Andrew Young even stated that in the years following the assassinations of Kennedy and later Martin Luther King, Jr., black families would have pictures of JFK in their homes, alongside photographs commemorating MLK and artwork depicting the Christian savior, Jesus Christ.
While I grew up in a household with a bust of King in the family room and a firm belief that no graven images of Jesus should ever be made, there wasn’t a picture of Kennedy. There was certainly admiration for the memory of Kennedy, for the way he dealt with the movement as the activists from King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the young advocates from the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) pushed Kennedy to confront the injustice of racial segregation and the wholesale disfranchisement of black voters in the American South.
My family certainly had profound sympathy for the Kennedy family in the wake of the tragedy, an abiding admiration for the grace of Jacqueline Kennedy, and a sense of heartbreak about what could have been, not only for JFK but also for his brother Bobby, who they always framed as having the potential for pushing the country even farther than his brother had on the quest for equal rights.
However, I don’t recall any blind worship of JFK on the question of civil rights.
Now granted, an anecdotal sample of one doesn’t mean much, but the anecdotal assertion of a hallowed place for JFK in black American homes also papers over the complex relationship Kennedy had with the movement. As he entered the presidency, Kennedy actively put politics before principal, refusing to take a public stand on the movement for fear of alienating southern Democrats who were fervent in their resistance to desegregation.
It’s important to recall that many crucial turning points in the modern civil rights movement had already taken place as Kennedy rose to national prominence. The Supreme Court had already overturned “separate but equal” in the Brown v. Board decision of 1954 opening the door to school desegregation. Longtime NAACP organizer Rosa Parks had already refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus sparking a year-long boycott which led to the desegregation of city buses and pushed a young Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. into the national spotlight.
King, benefiting from the assistance of longtime organizers Bayard Rustin, Stanley Levinson, and Ella Baker had already organized the SCLC. The Little Rock Nine had already faced down angry mobs of thousands of segregationists in Arkansas in the effort to integrate Central High School. And as Kennedy ran for office in 1960, the February 1 Greensboro, North Carolina sit-in at the Woolworths lunch counter launched the south-wide, student-led effort to dismantle segregation and led to the founding of SNCC.
Despite these efforts and the decades-long effort to challenge racial inequality, John Kennedy, like the majority of white Americans who lived outside of the South, had not paid much sustained attention to the question of race. Little in his previous experiences had forced him to grapple with the ways that Jim Crow segregation, racial violence, and black disfranchisement marred the American promise. Kennedy was hesitant to take on the question of racial inequality; after all, he was campaigning to be head of a Democratic Party that still tried to placate the concerns of southern Democrats.
Their resistance to any moves toward desegregation had once compelled southern Democrats to create a third party rather than ally with President Truman and his first steps toward racial integration in 1948. Kennedy wanted the votes of white southern Democrats who were in 1960, leading the charge against the 1954 Brown decision.
But Kennedy did not want to alienate black northern voters who had moved toward the Democratic Party during the New Deal, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration had created policies that for the first time in a generation benefited both black and white Americans.