Before assuming the presidency in 1960, John F. Kennedy barely paid attention to any Black American beyond his valet, and he intended to follow that approach during the first four of what he expected would be his eight years in office.
As the Civil Rights Movement exploded across the land, he tried mightily to keep it from wrecking his mutually wary relationship with a Congress dominated by the Democrats’ Southern segregationist bloc and their Republican allies. Even as late as the August 1963 March on Washington, two months after he had proposed the legislation that became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he tried to, first, dissuade the civil rights leadership from staging it, and then, to limit its scope.
Yet, ordinary Black Americans never stinted in their support of him – he had won more than 70 percent of the Black vote in November 1960 – and shared the profound grief that transfixed most Americans that November day at the crack of the assassin’s rifle shot.
But Black Americans’ sorrow was suffused by an even deeper anguish because from the bright beginning of his presidency to its violent end, John F. Kennedy was Black America’s Great White Hope.
In our era of extraordinary cynicism about what politics can achieve, it may be impossible for some not alive then to understand the faith Black Americans invested in the nation’s 35th president.
Like millions of White Americans, Blacks, too, were inspired by Kennedy’s image of youthful vigor, and his promises that, after the political and cultural blandness of the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, he would “get the country moving again.”
Millions of Americans were eager to believe those words had meaning.They were buoyed by the unprecedented prosperity of postwar American society; and by the sense, which JFK himself embodied, that it was time for the young men who had come of age during World War II and had fought in it to lead (At 43, he was the youngest president in American history). Like their fellow Americans, Blacks, too, were captivated by the cool charisma of this handsome, fabulously wealthy, Irish-Catholic American and his strikingly photogenic wife.
Furthermore, Black Americans drew a special meaning from JFK’s promise to lead America to a “New Frontier.” For Blacks themselves, six years past the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown school desegregation decision, had already gathered their forces on the boundary of a new racial frontier, ready to fully unleash the tactic of nonviolence protest to challenge the brutal regime of Jim Crow all across the South and the rest of America.
It was no accident that a month after Kennedy announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination, four students from the historically Black North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College (now university) launched the famous Greensboro sit-in to protest lunch-counter discrimination at the city’s downtown department store.
Nor that less than two weeks after JFK’s inauguration in January 1961, activists began the Freedom Rides through the South that told America and the world civil rights for Black Americans was going to be at the top of the American agenda. They, in fact, were already acting on the idealistic sense of purpose that had characterized Kennedy’s inaugural address.
Those two incidents underscore several larger points about the relationship between John F. Kennedy and Black America in the early 1960s.
One was that they liked him. But they also used his rhetoric about freedom as well as early waffling on civil rights to intensify their determination to get the rights the political system owed them.
They understood that Kennedy’s initial personal and political dislike of civil rights activism accurately reflected that of the overwhelming majority of Whites outside the South, too. It was the Movement’s task to compel them to recognize what was at stake, and to right the wrongs. The words of that Movement anthem—ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘round … gonna keep on a-walking, keep on a-talking, marching down to freedomland!—were meant not only for the Southern segregationists but for John F. Kennedy and other White “bystanders,” too.
And finally, there was one more thing that cemented the place of John F. Kennedy in the pantheon of African-American heroes: his murder at the very moment he had fully committed his administration to the Black freedom struggle. Horrific violence and a sense of tragedy had not only always shadowed Blacks’ quest for civil rights in America; it had shadowed their everyday existence. Now, that evil force had struck down the personification of American power, the 35th president of the United States – and Black America’s Great White Hope.
The irony is that in the sorrowful days of late November 1963, almost no one expected that JFK’s successor – the Texan, Lyndon Baines Johnson – would, for Black Americans, become an even greater benefactor.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.