The first time Harry Belafonte met John F. Kennedy, he was unimpressed.
It was the early 1960s and Kennedy was in the race to become America’s 35th president as he competed to win the Democratic nomination.
Initially, Belafonte’s loyalties lay with Adlai Stevenson, who sought the Democratic presidential for a third time that year.
Throughout the campaign, Belafonte says Kennedy was insistent upon meeting him. Belafonte was one of Dr. Martin Luther King‘s closest confidants, and along with the recognition he received as a celebrated singer, he was also considered one of the era’s most distinguished civil rights activists.
Because of this, Kennedy wanted to meet with Belafonte to ask him to help him to secure the black vote. Sports legend Jackie Robinson withdrew his support from the candidate (backing Richard Nixon instead) and so Belafonte says Kennedy was hoping to recruit another key African-American figure to join his camp.
Eventually, Belafonte reluctantly met with him.
“When I met with John, I was quite taken by the fact that he knew so little about the black community,” Belafonte told news correspondent Tom Brokaw in a recent interview. “He knew the headlines of the day, but he wasn’t really anywhere nuanced or detailed on the depth of black anguish or what our struggle’s really about.”
Instead, Belafonte agrees that at first, race was primarily part of Kennedy’s political agenda and that he lacked an organic understanding of what was going on in the black community.
“I asked him in detail about Dr. King. He knew very little, just knew that somewhere, there was this force. And he was out there, making some mischief,” he said.
Despite Kennedy’s irrestible charm and quick wit, he left his meeting with Belafonte without the singer’s endorsement.
“I told him that I would not be in his camp until we knew more clearly and in greater detail what his platform would be in relationship to the black vote and black people in general,” Belafonte said.
“I remember him saying to be just as he’s about to leave that — if he [sic] down the road — he was able to gain endorsement for the primaries and he became the official nominee for the Democratic Party, would I then endorse him? I said, ‘Well, let’s cross that bridge when you come to it and let’s see where the whole political landscape resided.'”
Soon, Kennedy won the primary and over the course of the campaign Belafonte says he became more familiar with integral members of Kennedy’s camp, like his brother Robert Kennedy whom he said was moving more vigorously on the issue of civil rights.
Soon after Kennedy’s primary victory, a second call was made to Belafonte. Kennedy wanted to meet with him again.
“When they came that time, they had far more details on the black vote, what the platform would look like and I said yes,” Belafonte recalls.
Following that meeting and continuing on throughout his campaign, Kennedy rallied to gain the black vote but it proved to be more difficult than he anticipated.
“I think there’s absolutely no question that not only did history do more to make John Kennedy than John Kennedy did to make history, but that history was precisely the upheaval in which this country had as its dawning,” Belafonte says. “The black movement was very vigorous and beginning to move into a place that really had him imbalanced. He didn’t quite know how to deal with us.”
In fact, it was Robert who made the call to the Georgia State legislator when Dr. King was imprisoned, which ultimately led to his release.
Meanwhile, John F. Kennedy called Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s wife, to reassure her that King’s imprisonment was a matter of big concern for him and that he would address the issue immediately.
Upon MLK‘s release from prison, Belafonte says he felt as though the Kings were obliged to pay back Kennedy for his support. But it was a move that came with much skepticism and was executed in a tactful manner.
“I thought that Dr. King endorsing Kennedy was a place that Dr. King did not want to go or should go,” Belafonte said. “We have no idea what this guy would do. We had no idea what his policy would really be and one thing Dr. King could not afford was endorse someone who, during his life as presidency, turned out to be not in the best interests of black people.”
“So we mapped out a way in which to do it, so that it appeared as if Dr. King was endorsing him, but hadn’t really. We took out an ad, applauding Kennedy for reaching in and saving Dr. King from the humiliation and the threat to life of being on the Georgia chain gang.
That kind of gave the word that Dr. King was favorably inclined. But he had not officially endorsed it. The rest of us did.”
Follow Lilly Workneh on Twitter @Lilly_Works