Why Blacks Loved John F. Kennedy

His brief presidency didn't introduce any new civil rights laws, but JFK appointed African Americans to high positions and acknowledged Latino concerns.

Then-Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kennedy with delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 1960.
Then-Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kennedy with delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 1960. Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images

<a href="http://mije.org/node/8141/#JFK”>Journalists Shared in Determined Hope of the Era

Fifty years after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, it’s easy for some to dismiss his brief presidency, as conservative commentator Brit Hume did on “Fox News Sunday.” Hume, a senior political analyst for FOX News Channel, said of Kennedy on Sunday, “despite the thinness of the record . . . he has been the subject of the most successful public relations campaign in political history. . . . it is a legend bordering, I think, on myth.” But Kennedy’s ties with blacks and Latinos were no myth during those tumultuous years when the civil rights movement was gaining steam and African Americans, particularly, were seeking allies in the White House. Black journalists, some of whom were in the trenches covering the movement of which they were necessarily a part, shared in that hope.

“Even though he would leave no new civil rights laws as his legacy,” Simeon Booker, the retired longtime correspondent for Ebony and Jet magazines, wrote this year in his autobiography, “Shocking the Conscience: A Reporter’s Account of the Civil Rights Movement,” “JFK nevertheless captured the heart of black America, becoming the best-loved chief executive in history.

“Applauded for appointing Negroes to high offices, Kennedy went even further, breaking down many racial barriers in informal ways. He probably hosted more blacks at White House events than had ever entered the mansion in all previous administrations combined. His appointment of top black leaders including the NAACP’s top lawyer, Thurgood Marshall, whom he named to the federal bench, for awhile had some blacks wondering if the new president was actually trying to stall the civil rights movement by a brain drain of its key resources. . . .

“These and other things so entwined with his personality enhanced JFK’s standing in the black community, just as they established a new code of race relations for the administration. As many blacks saw it, ‘Lincoln freed us, FDR gave us jobs, and JFK gave us pride in ourselves.’ “

Something similar happened with Latinos, according to Nadra Kareem Nittle’s essay, “The Chicano Movement: Brown and Proud,” published on the race relations page of About.com.

“Prior to the 1960s . . . Latinos lacked influence in the national political arena,” she wrote. “That changed when the Mexican American Political Association worked to elect John F. Kennedy president in 1960, establishing Latinos as a significant voting bloc.

“After Kennedy was sworn into office, he showed his gratitude toward the Latino community by not only appointing Hispanics to posts in his administration but also by considering the concerns of the Hispanic community. As a viable political entity, Latinos, particularly Mexican Americans, began demanding that reforms be made in labor, education and other sectors to meet their needs.”

Consider these black journalists who went to work in the Kennedy administration:

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