How Black Was JFK’s Camelot?

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

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

On the eve of the inauguration in Jan. 1961, Martin, with Kennedy’s other point man on civil rights, Harris Wofford (chairman of the subcabinet group on civil rights), lobbied the president-elect to at least include a nod to “human rights … at home and around the world” in the sterling speech Ted Sorenson more famously helped draft. All through the campaign, Kennedy had stressed that his approach to civil rights would flow from executive—more than legislative—action, and now, with Martin’s counsel in casting the players, he was ready to deliver.

The Black New Frontiersman

“ ‘I am not going to promise a Cabinet post to any race or ethnic group,’ ” JFK announced before the election, Bryant writes. “ ‘That is racism at its worse.’ ” Yet that is exactly what his “strategy of association” called for, except that the black men Kennedy hired were (to borrow from the late David Halberstam) “the best and brightest,” finally being given their shot to shine like Jackie Robinson had in a different “major league” 13 years before. In Kennedy’s first six months in office, the New York Amsterdam News reminded readers after the assassination, the Kennedy White House appointed some 50 black men (and women) to executive branch jobs.

But Louis Martin had already pushed those talking points out over a year before to Democratic party field workers (conveniently, those same talking points found their way to the Chicago Defender on April 21, 1962). In them, Martin emphasized the ceilings JFK had helped black professionals shatter in the federal government. He also reminded them that, unlike previous presidents, the positions Kennedy offered weren’t merely “advisory,” but were, as the headline ran, for “Negro Decision-Makers.” Their names, though largely forgotten to us now, were illustrious and continued being added to the rolls throughout JFK’s 1,000 days.

Here is but a brief sample:

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. In fact, according to a profile in Ebony in October 1963, Hatcher pinch-hit for Salinger “200 days … as the official White House spokesmen at press briefings, on the mikes and on the job,” including during “the Mississippi Meredith case.” “The appointment was enough to jar ‘the old pros’ who had long become accustomed to Negroes serving only as porters, messengers, maids, clerks and valets at the White House,” Simeon Booker of Ebony wrote.

Dr. Robert Weaver, administrator of the Housing and Home Finance Agency, “the highest appointive federal office ever held by an American Negro,” the Chicago Defender noted in its coverage of Weaver receiving the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal on June 5, 1962. (JFK tried to elevate Weaver to a full Cabinet member but was rebuffed by Southern Democrats around the same time he pushed to open up federal housing for blacks. Lyndon Baines Johnson, the legislator’s legislator, eventually made it happen, naming Weaver his first H.U.D. secretary in 1966.)

George L.P. Weaver, assistant aecretary of labor for Internal Affairs

Carl Rowan, deputy assistant secretary of state for Public Affairs (later LBJ’s director of the U.S. Information Agency, after Edward R. Murrow, and a nationally syndicated columnist)

Dr. Grace Hewell, program coordination officer, Department of Health, Education and Welfare