How Black Was JFK’s Camelot?

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

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
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

“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.”

“But the Cake Was Already Made”

The success of JFK’s public relations strategy rested on the abilities of his advisors. They included a few prominent blacks, who charted his segmented outreach efforts. While top Kennedy surrogates soft-pedaled his civil rights record in the South (there were few blacks who could vote there anyway in 1960), these black strategists targeted specific messages to black voters. It was a “strategy of association,” Nicholas Andrew Bryant writes in his valuable 2006 book, The Bystander: John F. Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality. The key to their strategy: black talent and a black press committed to showcasing it.

The man the Kennedy team recruited to lead the charge was the long-time former editor of the Chicago Defender, Louis E. Martin, whom the Washington Post once called “ ‘the godfather of black politics.’ ” He was the eventual advisor of three sitting presidents, and a “well-versed representative of the black protest tradition,” with strong ties to labor, as Alex Poinsett writes in his 1997 biography, Walking With the Presidents: Louis Martin and the Rise of Black Political Power. 

Back in the 1930s and ‘40s, Martin had helped turn Detroit Democratic in support of FDR’s New Deal as editor of the Michigan Chronicle. In joining the Kennedy campaign, he, along with black Washington attorneys Frank Reeves and Marjorie Lawson, customized JFK’s image for their friends at leading black newspapers across the country. After all, Martin had helped found the National Newspaper Publishers Association in 1940. 

It was a two-pronged attack far more sophisticated than the Nixon people had calculated. While Kennedy toned down his message in the mainstream white papers (and had Lyndon Johnson campaign for him in the South), Martin and company amplified JFK’s support of the Democrats’ strong civil rights plank in a series of brilliant advertisements. The campaigns included a Martin favorite, “A Leader in the Tradition of Roosevelt,” as well as a set of side-by-side pictures of JFK and famous black heroes, from Rep. William Dawson of Chicago (his support was vital) to Virginia Battle, the African-American secretary Kennedy had recruited to his Senate campaign in 1952. 

In other words, Bryant’s work suggests: Long before the assassination of JFK catapulted him into the pantheon of civil rights leaders, Louis Martin et al. planted the idea in black newspapermen’s minds. 

Along the way, Louis Martin (with others) had a hand in persuading candidate Kennedy to place a timely call to Coretta Scott King when her husband Martin was in jail and got New York’s black powerbroker, Rep. Adam Clayton Powell of Harlem, to accept $50,000 in exchange for making pro-Kennedy speeches. The call to Mrs. King was “ ‘the icing on the cake,’ ” Bryant quotes Louis Martin as saying. “‘But the cake was already made.’” 

And when it came out of the oven …

Kennedy, in a tight election, won 78 percent of the black vote. Soon after, Martin became deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee; but really, Bryant writes, Martin was, with his “great savvy in public relations,” Kennedy’s “personal point man on civil rights” (the stage manager of the black Camelot, if you will).