ABOVE PHOTO: This photo provided by the Kennedy Library, show President John F. Kennedy with National Urban League officials. President Kennedy (in rocking chair) meeting with National Urban League Executive Director Whitney M. Young, center, and president Henry Steeger in the president’s Living Room of the White House in Washington, on Jan. 23, 1962. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., tells the story of Young’s boldness in dealing with civil rights issues in “The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight For Civil Rights” a documentary airing during Black History Month on PBS’ Independent Lens and shown in some community theaters.
(AP Photo/The White House, Abbie Rowe, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)
By Jesse Washington
As president, John F. Kennedy’s top priority was foreign policy. There were enormous Cold War challenges — from the Soviet Union and Vietnam to Cuba, site of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and of a crisis over Soviet missiles that threatened to trigger nuclear war.
Meanwhile, at home, the boiling civil rights movement could not be ignored.
“Freedom Riders” seeking to integrate Southern bus lines were mercilessly beaten. Whites rioted to prevent the black student James Meredith from enrolling at the University of Mississippi; two people were killed after Kennedy sent in troops to ensure Meredith’s admission.
In Birmingham, Ala., police loosed clubs, dogs and fire hoses on peaceful protesters, and a church bombing killed four black girls. Images of the violence shamed America before the world.
As blood flowed, Kennedy moved cautiously toward civil rights legislation.
Publicly, Kennedy’s administration was reluctant to intervene in the Southern violence unless federal law was being flouted. Privately, Kennedy’s men urged protest leaders to slow down and avoid confrontation.
Many saw the administration’s stance as aloof or even helpless. Earlier, after Kennedy had disowned proposals that were part of the Democrats’ 1960 campaign platform, NAACP president Roy Wilkins said Kennedy was offering “a cactus bouquet.”
Mack, the civil rights activist, was at the Democratic convention where those promises were made. He recalls being highly frustrated with Kennedy’s pace once he became president.
“We were deeply committed young people who were out to change the system. Down in the South we were fighting segregation in all its original ugliness,” Mack says.
But amid the frustration, Mack says, there was recognition among movement leaders that Kennedy was politically constrained.
“He had to deal with some segregationists,” Mack says.
Kennedy needed some of those segregationists to advance his foreign policy agenda, says Barrett, the Villanova professor. He also had to think about reelection, and not alienating white Southern voters.
“Civil rights simply was not a top priority,” says Barrett, who studies the Kennedy administration and teaches a course on the civil rights movement.
“He was busy with so many other issues, especially foreign policy issues, he didn’t give it the kind of energy and attention that we might wish in retrospect,” he says.
Civil rights was a top priority — in a different way — for J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI.
Hoover believed the growing civil rights movement was under Communist influence and a threat to national security. He closely monitored King and others in the movement with surveillance, informants and wiretaps.
In 1963, “the FBI assigned full enemy status to King,” Branch wrote, noting that even “after receiving intelligence that someone was trying to kill him, the Bureau would refuse to warn King as it routinely warned other potential targets.”
Yet Kennedy still worked with King, even as his FBI tried to tear King down.
In June 1963, King had a private meeting with Kennedy at the White House. During a stroll through the Rose Garden, the president told King that he was under surveillance.
“He was playing both sides of the issue,” Barrett says.
A few minutes after Kennedy’s warning, he and King joined a meeting with other civil rights leaders. The March on Washington had been announced, and Kennedy had hinted publicly that he was against it. Someone in the meeting asked if that was true.
“We want success in the Congress, not a big show on the Capitol,” Kennedy replied, according to “Parting the Waters.”
In the end, the peaceful mass march made headlines around the world.
Kennedy watched it on television. Immediately afterward, he met with march leaders in the White House, where they discussed civil rights legislation that was finally inching through Congress. The leaders pressed Kennedy to strengthen the legislation; the president listed many obstacles.
Some believe Kennedy preferred to wait until after the 1964 election to push the issue. Yet in his public speeches, he spoke more and more about justice for all.
La Trice Washington, a professor at Otterbein College in Ohio, says some of Kennedy’s rhetoric went “well beyond sympathetic.” As an example, she cites a graduation speech at San Diego State College on June 11, 1963.
“Our goal must be an educational system in the spirit of the declaration of independence — a system in which all are created equal,” Kennedy said. “A system in which every child, whether born a banker’s son in a Long Island mansion, or a Negro sharecropper’s son in an Alabama cotton field, has every opportunity for an education that his abilities and character deserve.”
Those were dangerous words, Washington says.
“That was not acceptable language by the dominant culture,” she says. “That puts you on the front lines. It puts you on the line not only for political retribution, but for death.”
Fifty years later, except for the aging few who recall the portraits on the walls, Kennedy is not widely remembered as a civil rights icon. During this past February’s Black History Month, his name was seldom mentioned.
His successor, President Lyndon Johnson, receives credit for hammering through the monumental Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, which ensured full citizenship for African-Americans.
“Kennedy was sort of remade after his death,” says Allan Saxe, a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington who has researched Kennedy and civil rights. “He did speak on civil rights, he talked about it, but he never got much legislation through.”
Barrett, the Villanova professor, says Kennedy was moving, however slowly, toward a “full steam ahead” approach to civil rights — and then he was killed.
“I don’t think he ever developed an emotional or gut level commitment on this issue. He’s memorialized that way, but I don’t think he got there,” Barrett says.
Today, the hard facts of history can be unforgiving. But for black people who lived that history, a cautious hand extended can feel like an embrace.
“When I think about his compassion for people, I also think about Martin Luther King,” says Jordan, the Richmond pastor. She believes Kennedy is a martyr for black people, “because a martyr is someone who died for what they believed.”
Mack, the civil rights activist, admires him still.
Whether Kennedy might have achieved anything substantial on civil rights — “that’s the unknown,” he acknowledges.
Still, he adds, “Being as young as I was, I saw him as a breath of fresh air. Youthful, dynamic, a new visionary type of leader. I felt a lot of optimism and hope. I felt that in time, if we kept up our advocacy, he would deal with issues important to our people.”