Why do so many African Americans believe in JFK conspiracy theories?
November 22 marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. While a recent poll finds that a clear majority of Americans—59 percent—believes there was a conspiracy to kill Kennedy, with 24 percent believing Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, and 16 percent unsure, that number has dropped from 75 percent in 2003.
The conspiracy theories on what may have happened to the nation’s 35th president abound, including the idea that the Central Intelligence Agency was behind the killing, even that Oswald was a CIA operative.
Some people argue the Soviet Union did it because it was the Cold War and the U.S. imposed a naval blockade against Communist Cuba. Then there was the Cuban Missile Crisis and Kennedy’s botched Bay of Pigs invasion. Plus, Oswald had visited the U.S.S.R. on two occasions with his Russian wife.
Meanwhile, others say the mafia was responsible, and we know the CIA met with organized crime to discuss assassinating Fidel Castro. Also, the mob had a lucrative casino business in Cuba before Castro came to power, as anyone who has watched The Godfather knows. Further, they did not like JFK’s younger brother, crime fighting Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who also pointed the finger at the mafia in his brother’s death. Any evidence that New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello may have done it was either destroyed or is classified.
And Jack Ruby, the man who killed Oswald, was a Dallas nightclub owner with mob ties. Still others posit that the Cubans plotted the assassination, a theory which Lyndon B. Johnson—the man who succeeded Kennedy—maintained. And some even claim that Johnson himself did the deed, aided by George H.W. Bush.
According to alternate theories, the driver of the president’s limousine that day in Dallas committed the act, or it was a case of friendly fire, or that man who opened a black umbrella on that sunny day was the assassin. Maybe Joe DiMaggio was behind the assassination because—in another conspiracy— the Kennedys were responsible for his wife Marilyn Monroe’s death.
And what about the black couple on the grassy knoll who were on the scene in Dallas when JFK was shot, yet were never questioned about what they witnessed?
One group of Americans who are likely to believe the JFK conspiracy theories are African-Americans. Polls have shown that blacks and Latinos are more likely than whites to believe in them. There are a number of reasons why.
First, black people are more prone to believing conspiracies surrounding Kennedy because they have been the victims of real-life conspiracy theories that turned out to be true. They have found themselves under attack, not in theory but in reality. Take slavery and the slave trade, for instance. It is hard to debunk that one, or the conspiracy by former Confederate soldiers to terrorize and lynch blacks by forming the Ku Klux Klan. Or that blacks were sterilized by the U.S. government, or used as human guinea pigs in the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, which helps explain why blacks in surveys are more likely to believe AIDS is part of a conspiracy to commit genocide against blacks. Then there were the allegations in the San Jose Mercury News that the CIA flooded the black community with cocaine.
President Kennedy was a favorite of African-Americans. Before the 1960 election, Martin Luther King was arrested for a sit-in in Georgia and sent to jail, and then-presidential candidate Kennedy made a phone call to push for King’s release. Kennedy even made a phone call to Coretta Scott King. At a time when significant number of blacks voted Republican (Eisenhower received 40 percent of the black vote in 1956), this gesture could have tipped the balance in Kennedy’s favor among the black electorate in such a close race.
At the height of the civil rights movement, Kennedy gave African-Americans hope—like Abraham Lincoln a century earlier, who had advocated black voting rights and was assassinated by a Confederate spy named John Wilkes Booth. Further, black people were believed they were doomed when he was assassinated. Blacks are more likely to believe the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. was a conspiracy, including the King family themselves.
African-Americans have had reason to believe in conspiracy theories involving their own leadership, and leaders fighting for civil rights. Since the days of Marcus Garvey, the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover targeted black leaders. Under the COINTELPRO program, which monitored and disrupted political activists and organizations in the 1960s, Hoover sought to “prevent the rise of a black messiah.”
The result was the assassination of black leaders such as Malcolm X, Dr. King, and Fred Hampton of the Black Panther Party in Chicago. Such tragic events, real conspiracies, only served to reinforce black distrust of government, even as African-Americans sought government support of civil rights legislation.
In June 1963, President Kennedy promoted civil rights as the governor of Alabama blocked integration of the University of Alabama.
“Today, we are committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free,” the president said in a speech. “And when Americans are sent to Vietnam or West Berlin, we do not ask for whites only.”
So, it makes sense that so many African-Americans would believe in JFK conspiracy theories. After all, they know about conspiracies.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove