Friday, November 15, 2013
The Day Innocence Died – Kennedy and Race
Race relations in American history have been disgraceful and more horrific treatment imposed upon African America’s than any other people ever to walk the earth. People of African descent have been enslaved, segregated, and maligned for all of America’s history, yet have remained supremely devoted and loyal. I can now understand what it must have been like when President Lincoln fought to end slavery and then was assassinated. It must have felt like their last hope was gone. Respectively, when President Kennedy was killed most African America’s relived the pain of their ancestors.
In the 1960s one would surely find three portraits hung in just about every African American home; Jesus represented unconditional hope, strength and love; Dr. King personified the moral crusade that ended legal segregation, and there was President John F. Kennedy, who holds an important, but complicated place in black history when we look back the time in which he lived.
It’s been fifty-years since the death of Kennedy and as time has passes we're still trying to figure it out what he might have done for civil rights had he not been killed. For sure, African American’s placed hope in this man akin to that invested in Abraham Lincoln in terms of our obtaining the long awaited equality, as they both sympathized with the black struggle like no other president before them.
During Kennedy’s time in office, he did speak eloquently against segregation despite resistance from Southern racists in his own Democratic party. Some even feel that his support for civil rights was one reason he was killed, even though racial motives seldom featured prominently among the many theories about Kennedy's death.
The impact of his death in many African American homes at the time was like that of losing a family member. Its effect was like a big cloud over the whole black community, an aura of hopelessness. Just look back at the pictures of the funeral, you see so many black people out there crying. Mind you, this was at a time when African Americans were barred from most, if not all, public accommodations.
In a speech soon after meeting Dr. King, Kennedy spoke of the "moving examples of moral courage" shown by civil rights protesters. Their peaceful demonstrations, he said, were not "to be lamented, but a great sign of responsibility, of good citizenship, of the American spirit." He went on to reference the growing "sit-in" movement, in which black customers demanded service at white-only restaurants, Kennedy said: "It is in the American tradition to stand up for one's rights even if the new way to stand up for one's rights is to sit down."
Let’s be clear; he was a white man and wanted to steer clear of the issue of race for political reasons. However, he endeared himself to the African American community when Dr. King was in jail. Over the objections of his brother and campaign manager, Robert Kennedy, an aide managed to convince the candidate to place a sympathetic call to King's pregnant wife, Coretta. Soon thereafter, Robert Kennedy called the judge. Suddenly, bail was granted, and King was freed.
The story of the Kennedys' involvement made headlines in black newspapers nationwide. King issued a statement saying he was "deeply indebted to then Senator Kennedy," although he remained nonpartisan. The Kennedy campaign printed tens of thousands of pamphlets describing the episode and distributed them in black churches across the country on the Sunday before the presidential election. He would get 78 percent of the black vote, won the election by one of the narrowest margins in U.S. history.
When Kennedy became president, his top priority was foreign policy. There were enormous Cold War challenges, from the Soviet Union and Vietnam to Cuba the site of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and of the crisis over Soviet missiles that threatened to trigger a nuclear war. At the same time, the civil rights movement was boiling and 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 and as African American blood flowed, Kennedy moved cautiously toward civil rights legislation. Publicly, the Kennedy 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.
In light of foreign policy issues, civil rights simply was not a top priority. It could be said that he allowed J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, to deal with the Negro problem, which was a bad idea. 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. He went so far as to refuse to warn King as it routinely warned other potential targets. In spite of Kennedy publicly working with King, even as his FBI tried to tear King down, he paid both sides of the issue.
Kennedy also opposed to the March on Washington using the argument that he wanted success in the Congress for any civil rights legislation. 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.
During a speech at San Diego State College in June 1963 Kennedy said, "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." This was dangerous for the time and not acceptable language by the dominant culture. This put him on the enemy list not only for political retribution, but for death.
If it were not for the 50th anniversary of his death few African Americans would mention his name. Young people barely remember him; there are no aging portraits on the walls, and certainly he is not remembered as a civil rights icon. It was his successor, President Johnson, who receives credit for hammering through the monumental Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, which ensured full citizenship for African-Americans.
Whether Kennedy might have achieved anything substantial on civil rights or for black people, we will never know but he was a breath of fresh air, youthful, dynamic, and in my view a new visionary type of leader full of optimism and hope.
Disclaimer: The information contained in this series is that of the presenters and does not necessarily reflect the views of the author. It is information that is in the public domain provided for the reader to form an opinion. Whereas, it is the author’s position that the most profound sin is a tragedy unremembered and the absence of truth. And that’s my thought provoking perspective…