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JFK: A reluctant advocate for African-American civil rights


How a confluence of events changed the president’s opinion

Last week, America marked the 60th year since the seismic death of President John F. Kennedy. Elected president in 1960, Kennedy campaigned under the theme “The New Frontier” which, voters had hoped, would shed new light on the problems Americans faced. For a specific and loyal voting block, this meant not just the manifestation but the actual application of Black civil rights throughout the nation.

Two weeks before the 1960 presidential election, Kennedy called Coretta Scott King whose husband, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., had been arrested during a sit-in at an Atlanta department store. After the other protesters had been released, King was held for violating the terms of his “probation” for an earlier traffic violation (essentially “driving while Black”) with an expired driver’s license. The judge sentenced King to six months’ hard labor.

An unexpected phone call

The next thing Mrs. King heard was that her husband had been taken–in the dark of night–from the Dekalb County jail and driven more than 200 miles to the maximum security state prison in Reidsville, Ga.

Behind the scenes, Kennedy had pressed Georgia Gov. Samuel Vandiver to arrange King’s release. Kennedy still didn’t speak out publicly, not wanting to risk alienating White Southerners in a close election. In the end, Harris Wofford, the civil rights activist who later would serve as U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania, and R. Sargent Shriver, the president’s brother-in-law, persuaded him to call Mrs. King, who was six months pregnant. Kennedy told her he knew how hard it must be for her in noting that his own wife was due in a month: “If there is anything I can do to help, please feel free to call on me.”

King was released on bail a day later. The press met up with King and he mentioned Kennedy’s call–and Vice President Richard Nixon’s silence. King did not endorse Kennedy, but the news of the phone call spread quickly and, undoubtedly, energized Black voters for the upcoming election. Among those whose minds were changed was a Black Southerner who (unlike most) could vote. He was Martin Luther King Sr. 

Kennedy and King in close contact

“I had expected to vote against Sen. Kennedy because of his religion,” Daddy King said. “Now he can be my president, Catholic or whatever he is.” Kennedy got a laugh out of the comment in noting to Shriver: “Imagine Martin Luther King having a bigot for a father,” he said. “Well, we all have our fathers, don’t we?” Between that incident and his assassination, Kennedy and King would formally meet five times at the White House.

Kennedy was not a leader in civil rights. Until the last months of his life, he saw the struggle for equality as a “righteous distraction” from critical domestic issues (including taxes and steel prices) and Cold War foreign affairs. When he acted, he did so in response to the horrific violence peaceful protest made manifest: The clubbing of Freedom Riders, the bombing of Black businesses, homes and churches, the attacks on demonstrators with jack boots, water cannons and police dogs, and the race riots in Oxford, Miss. over the admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi.

On the evening of May 3, 1963, Americans watched on television as King’s campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Ala. collapsed under a wave of officially sanctioned violence and utter mayhem. Birmingham police attacked peaceful Black demonstrators with clubs, dogs and high-pressure fire hoses. It was the first time that many citizens understood the breadth of America’s racial divide. Perhaps no one regarded the events with more anguish than President Kennedy. Black Americans quickly realized that Kennedy's rather piecemeal approach to civil rights was an abject failure. It was at this moment that, finally, Kennedy would do what King had been urging him to do all along: Call civil rights a moral issue and acknowledge that the country faced a crisis that could not be met, in King’s words, by “repressive police action” or “quieted by token moves or talk.”

A reluctant civil rights advocate

When campaigning for the office, Kennedy largely believed that by showing the world what a free and democratic society had to offer, the United States could ensure the defeat of communism. Unfortunately, the world had for generations seen the negative side of America, namely intolerance and oppression. Black citizens were treated as second class citizens, frequently denied access to public facilities, prohibited from exercising their right to vote, restricted from employment, housing and educational opportunities and continually subjected to racist violence.

Civil rights leaders—and the Black voters who overwhelmingly voted for him–implored Kennedy to take a forceful public stand by issuing a call for comprehensive legislation to help put an end to both segregation de jour in the South and segregation de facto nationwide. For the first two years of his administration, Kennedy ignored the call because, despite his abhorrent view of racial discrimination, he needed the support of Southern politicians (and voters) to help The New Frontier achieve its lofty goals.

Kennedy had pushed for civil rights on many fronts. He ordered his attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy, to submit friends of the court briefs on behalf of civil rights litigants. He appointed African-Americans to positions within his administration. When racists attacked Freedom Riders traveling by bus from Washington, D.c. to Birmingham in May 1961, Kennedy sent federal marshals to protect the protesters.

In September 1962, Kennedy had brokered a deal with Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett to allow Meredith to register at Ole Miss. Federal marshals would be there to protect Meredith, but as Kennedy prematurely announced Meredith’s successful registration on national television, the marshals were fighting–and losing–a battle to control violent segregationists at the university.

The Kennedy administration was embarrassed—but the violence did little to sway the president’s approach to civil rights. Activists asked Kennedy to issue an executive order ending discrimination in federal mortgage loans. He put off the action for months and issued a watered-down version in November 1962. In February 1963, Kennedy sent a civil rights package to Congress which included legislation to secure Black voting rights. That bill didn’t address public accommodations–a major point for civil rights activists–and the effort was considered a moot point. Kennedy didn’t promote the bill very much and it quickly expired.

‘I want to go on television tonight’

That’s what Kennedy told his aides on June 11, 1963, just hours after federal marshals had escorted Black students to their dormitories at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. The president delivered a televised address from the Oval Office and announced that he would send another legislative package to Congress to include provisions for access to public facilities, voting rights and technical and monetary support for school desegregation.

“The heart of the question,” Kennedy said, “is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and opportunities. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot enjoy [a] full and free life, then who among us would want to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?” The answer from those opposed came the next evening in Jackson, Miss. when a member of the Ku Klux Klan, Byron de La Beckwith, shot and killed Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s Mississippi field secretary.

Why did Kennedy change course on civil rights? It came largely due to the influence and evolving view of his brother and closest advisor Robert F. Kennedy. A deeper impression was made on Robert Kennedy in New York City in May 1963. He met with a number of African-American activists who gathered at his invitation. The group had been assembled by novelist James Baldwin, whose celebrated 1962 New Yorker piece titled “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” claimed “The Negroes of this country may never be able to rise to power, but they are well placed indeed to participate chaos and bring down the curtain of the American dream.”

The influence of James Baldwin

President Kennedy was among those who were taken by Baldwin’s powerful essay as well as a May 1963 Time Magazine cover story on Baldwin titled “The Root of the Negro Problem.” Robert Kennedy’s aforementioned New York City gathering began civilly, but a young Freedom Rider, one Jerome Smith, lit into the attorney general about the plight of African-Americans.

“He put it like it was,” recalled actress/singer Lena Horne, “the plain, basic suffering of being a Negro.”

The meeting lasted only three hours, but it stayed with Robert Kennedy far longer. “After Baldwin,” said Nicholas Katzenbach, the president’s deputy attorney general, “he was in absolute shock. Bobby never expected to be an honorary Black–he thought he knew so much–and he didn’t.” Katzenbach recalled later that it was Bobby Kennedy who urged the president’s speech on civil rights, while other top advisors claimed it was “too soon.”

“I don’t think there was anyone in the cabinet–except the president himself–who felt that way on these issues, and the president got it from his brother,” Katzenbach said.