How Black Was JFK's Camelot?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: The answer reveals why Kennedy is so highly regarded by blacks.

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Andrew T. Hatcher, associate White House press secretary, the first black man to hold the No. 2 communications spot in the White House, behind his longtime political compatriot, Pierre Salinger

Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Editor's note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 55: Who were the African Americans in the Kennedy administration?

“I regard the death of President Kennedy as the greatest tragedy that has befallen America since the assassination of Civil War President Abraham Lincoln,” declared a grief-stricken John H. Sengstacke, publisher of the Chicago Defender, hours after the 35th president was gunned down at 46 while riding in an open limousine beside the first lady. John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas happened 50 years ago this Friday. Speaking to his black readership, Sengstacke added, “Kennedy’s tragic ending is [also] the greatest blow that the Negro people has sustained since the demise of the great Emancipator.”

Jackie Robinson, the first black major-leaguer and a proud Republican who had supported Richard Nixon for president in 1960, contributed to the outpouring. “It’s hard for any of us to imagine even the tragedy that has hit,” he was quoted in the Defender. Drawing a parallel to black civil rights leader Medgar Evers, who had only been shot and killed outside his Mississippi home the previous June, Robinson noted, “Each of these gentlemen … desired a better America,” and even if Kennedy had “needed prodding” in advancing civil rights, “we all admired and respected him.”

Striking to me in going back to the immediate coverage of the Kennedy assassination is how quickly African Americans elevated him to sainthood. Just a few months prior, he had been lukewarm on the March on Washington (worried as he was about a backlash against the civil rights bill he had, at last, proposed in a televised address from the Oval Office on June 11 after sending in the National Guard to carry out a federal court-order desegregating the University of Alabama). Perhaps that sense of nuance—of distinctions among events so close in time—is what comes with the advance of years between my hearing the devastating news as a 13-year-old student in Mrs. Houchins’ geography class in Piedmont, W.V., and reflecting on it as a professor of 63 who has just completed a six-hour series for PBS on the 500-year history of the African American people, (Much of that history was spent making do while waiting for lawmakers to act, as you will see in Episode 5, covering the civil rights movement. It airs tomorrow night and is fittingly titled “Rise!”) 

Don’t get me wrong: JFK is one of my favorite presidents. Yet I, like many, am aware of how much he evolved on civil rights, at least when it came to confronting the Southern Democrats in his party in the House and Senate. 

“To some, he was slow to begin on his promise when he took office,” George Barbour wrote in the Pittsburgh Courier five days after the slain president had been buried in Arlington National Cemetery, the same cemetery in which Medgar Evers was buried. “However, to this reporter,” Barbour added, “he [JFK] never wavered and in appointments, speeches, application of presidential power, secured direct benefits for the Negro unparalleled in modern history, and this strengthened the character of a great country.” JFK was, if anything, a Cold Warrior aware of America’s standing in the world, of the need to lead “a new generation of Americans” toward what he famously called “the New Frontier.” But another Lincoln?

Indeed, Enoc Waters wrote in the Philadelphia Tribune on Nov. 26, 1963, “In spite of occasional criticism of his civil rights actions and legislative proposals, the thirty-fifth President of the United States was held in warm affection by all Negroes” (despite the fact that, on the day of his assassination, black Republicans were gathered in Cleveland for a political strategy session) so that the only presidents who could be fairly be compared to him were “Lincoln” and that other monogrammed man, “FDR.” The great civil rights attorney Constance Baker Motley agreed, telling the National Council of Women of the United States on Dec. 1, 1963, according to the Atlanta Daily World: JFK was “the greatest presidential advocate of equal rights this century has heard,” and there was only a century exactly separating his murder and the original Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln had issued before his assassination at the climax of the Civil War. 

The mourning rites of those four November days in 1963—the shock, the arrival of the body in Washington, the lying in state, the Oswald murder, the funeral procession—certainly etched this image of Kennedy as the second coming of Lincoln in American minds. Whereas the late president had complained about the lack of black faces in the U.S. Coast Guard Academy honor guard at his inaugural parade, at his funeral, there were, Dan Day noted in a column appearing in the Philadelphia Tribune on Nov. 26, two “dark-skinned” military personnel in the eight-man detail “clearly in view at all times about the coffin.”

“Clearly in view”—that was the point, I’ve come to realize, the brilliance of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s stagecraft. A noted devotee of Broadway musicals, including Camelot, of course, JFK personally may have opposed discrimination as a moral matter; but, when it came to politics, he was a pragmatist who balanced his cautious legislative approach with a commitment to advance the symbols of desegregation and diversity in and around the White House, his Camelot. Stagecraft was something he, like FDR before him, made part of the modern presidency, and it’s something we take for granted today. On one hand, to keep Southern Democrats like Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia in the fold, he gave in on appointing their judges in the South. At the same time, to keep black voters in the North on his side, he went out of his way to see that talented black professionals, especially black newspapermen, were hired to get the message out to their readers that they—and the message—would be “clearly in view.”

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