The 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination generated extensive media coverage of what happened that fateful day in Dallas, fresh discussion of conspiracy theories about who was really responsible and nostalgia for the glamour of “Camelot,” in particular the 35th president and his iconic wife, Jackie.
But one less-covered angle was the impact that his assassination, the later assassination of his brother Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 and the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that same year had on black Americans—specifically the fact that those deaths left our community with a sort of unspoken post-traumatic stress disorder that leaves us particularly concerned that if a leader is perceived to be working in our interests, he may be more likely to be killed.
President Barack Obama addressed this fear in a recent interview with Barbara Walters, in which he is reported to have referenced the Kennedy tragedy by saying, “Obviously, tragedy reshaped the Secret Service in many ways, but they do an outstanding job, and it’s thankfully not something I spend a lot of time worrying about.”
He may not, but plenty of black Americans do.
During his contentious 2008 primary race with his future secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, the sensitivity many feel about the fear of harm being done to the first black president was magnified when she made an appalling blunder on the campaign trail. In a clumsy attempt to defend her decision to stay in a race that was increasingly considered out of her reach, she said, “My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California. I don’t understand it.”
The remark was met with horror, particularly among then-Sen. Obama’s black supporters. And after first dismissing the remark’s inappropriateness, Clinton’s campaign finally issued an apology—focused on the Kennedy family, not the Obamas.
In a later 60 Minutes interview, Michelle Obama would be asked directly if she worried about the possibility that her husband could be assassinated, to which she replied, “I don’t lose sleep over it because the realities are as a black man, Barack could get shot going to the gas station. You can’t make decisions based on fear and the possibilities of what might happen. We just weren’t raised that way.”
But her incredibly honest and unguarded answer perfectly illustrates why so many of us do lose sleep worrying about him. The average black man is much more likely to be a victim of homicide than the average person, so how could we not worry about one of the most visible, powerful and controversial black men in history?
The Obamas, like other first families, have faced their share of threats. But what’s likely unique to them are those threats that are racially tinged and motivated.