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.”
“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).
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
Christopher C. Scott, deputy assistant postmaster general for transportation
Lt. Commander Samuel Gravely, of the U.S.S. Falgout, the first black Navy commander to lead a combat ship, according to Martin
Dr. Mabel Murphy Smythe, member, U.S. Advisory Commission on Educational Exchange, Department of State
John P. Duncan, commissioner of the District of Columbia
Clifford Alexander Jr., national security council (later secretary of the army under President Carter)
A. Leon Higginbotham, a member of the five-man Federal Trade Commission, which, in September 1962, made him the first African American ever to be appointed to a federal regulatory agency—and only at age 35. (Higginbotham was a distinguished Philadelphia attorney who had graduated from Yale Law School and served as the city’s NAACP chapter president and former assistant district attorney; I was proud to recruit him and his wife Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham to teach at Harvard after I arrived in 1991.)
The ambassadors: Carl Rowan, to Finland; Clifton Wharton, to Norway; and Mercer Cook, to Niger
U.S. attorneys: Cecil Poole, Northern California; and Merle McCurdy, Northern Ohio
President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity: Alice Dunnigan; John Hope; Azie Taylor (later, U.S. treasurer under President Carter); Hobart Taylor; John Wheeler; and Howard Woods.
Federal judges: James Benton Parsons, Northern District of Illinois, the first black federal district judge to serve inside the continental U.S.; Wade McCree, Eastern District of Michigan; Marjorie Lawson, Juvenile Court of the District of Columbia; and, “Mr. Civil Rights” himself (as Louis Martin referred to him), Thurgood Marshall, the Second Circuit, U.S. Court of Appeals. A. Leon Higginbotham would have made No. 5 when JFK nominated him for a district court judgeship in October 1963, but after the assassination, he was held over until LBJ submitted his name again in January 1964.
In 1962, JFK also considered elevating to the U.S. Supreme Court William Hastie, the former dean of Howard Law School and by then a judge on the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals (a first at that level during the Truman administration), but opted for Byron White instead, either because Hastie had resigned his post as a civilian aide over the segregation of black troops during World War II, as Dan Day speculated in the Cleveland Call and Post at the time, or because a pair of sitting white justices made it known Hastie was “insufficiently liberal,” as Robert Dallek posits in his 2003 JFK biography An Unfinished Life.
While you’ll find few of these names in Dallek’s new book, Camelot Court: Inside the Kennedy White House, the black press at the time followed these appointments closely, and the selections gave Kennedy cover in deferring civil rights legislation during his first two years in office.
Martin and Hatcher in particular traveled around the county speaking to black organizations to press the point that the Kennedy administration was desegregating the federal government in dramatic fashion. In Camelot, it was about making perception reality, of translating symbolic stances into cultural shifts, so that even if readers couldn’t feel change in the country, they could see it. This included the administration’s pressing for the Washington Redskins to sign their first black player and refusing to address segregated audiences or join whites-only clubs; inviting black notables to White House dinners and thousands of black leaders for Lincoln’s birthday; posing the president with leaders of independent African nations; having Andrew Hatcher in the frame at the president’s first televised press conference; and having Hatcher’s 5-year old son, Avery, integrate Caroline Kennedy’s White House kindergarten class (a headline in the Baltimore Afro-American on Sept. 29, 1962). To placate Southern Democrats, President Kennedy may have been “singing Dixie,” as he once told a reporter (according to Bryant), but in Martin and Hatcher’s spin, he was humming civil rights.
The optics that Kennedy’s black “mad men” created in turn created opportunities for men like Dr. King outside the White House; and when it came time for massaging the relationships, including in the lead-up to the 1961 Freedom Rides, who do you think brokered the secret meeting at the Mayflower Hotel between the Kennedy and King teams? Right: the other Martin. Well-documented as the external crises were that forced the president’s hand during the civil rights movement, Martin, Hatcher and the others were his hand-picked men.
Inside the White House, the picture was more complicated, we now know. For example, there is the story Sammy Davis Jr. told in his 1989 memoir, Yes I Can, about JFK dissuading him from attending the inauguration for fear of appearances if the press caught Davis with his (white) Swedish wife, May Britt. This, Bryant notes, was even though Kennedy had no qualms about dancing with black women at his inaugural balls. At the same time, Kennedy never forced FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to call off the wiretaps on King. And, overall, JFK was not particularly close to any of his black appointees, except, perhaps, for his black personal valet, George Thomas, who, Bryant writes, had been with him since 1947. But that was the mystique of Camelot.
Over time, though, perhaps, it created a genuine feeling in Kennedy, and—in addition to what he was reading and seeing on TV—allowed him to react to the Birmingham, Ala., violence knowing firsthand what it looked like for white and black children to play together at his own child’s school. Perhaps it influenced him, seeing a black man like Andrew Hatcher working 12- to 14-hour days in the White House and taking no more than two vacation days in two years, even sleeping at the White House five nights in a row during the Cuban Missile Crisis; a man who, according to Ebony, faced constant scrutiny “ha[ving] to carry the ‘race problem’ on one shoulder around some whites and … the ‘soul problem’ on the other shoulder for some Negros.”
“I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents,” JFK told the nation in his civil rights address on June 11, 1963. “This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”
So effective were JFK’s uses of black symbols in Camelot that when he was murdered in Dallas less than five months later, it was natural for those reacting immediately in the press to assume it had to do with his increasingly progressive record on civil rights.
4 Days in November
During the Kennedy years, these symbols worked their way into the national consciousness, and became part of the chaotic events surrounding the assassination itself. The night before, for example, Secret Service Agent Robert Faison, the first permanent black member of the White House detail (Abraham Bolden was the first to work the detail in 1961) was about to be turned away from the hotel where the president was scheduled to sleep in Fort Worth. Faison’s fellow white agents threatened to pull everyone out—including JFK—if the hotel didn’t relent. It did, and the day after, traveling on to Austin ahead of the president, Faison and those on his shift received the news, and the next day found themselves at the president’s wake, as Gerald Blaine and Lisa McCubbin wrote in The Kennedy Detail (2011). A change had come.
Then there was Kennedy’s longest black friend in Washington, his valet George Thomas, whom the president had teased just before stepping off Air Force One in Dallas. When the body was being prepared for rest, Thomas knew enough to turn the monogrammed front of his late boss’s handkerchief inward the way he liked it, a last gesture of devotion, as Thomas’ 1980 obituary in the Washington Post conveyed.
Long before the anniversary of the tragedy we prepare to commemorate as a nation this Friday, black New Frontiersman laid the groundwork for JFK’s sainthood so that the country didn’t need to see his handkerchiefs to keep those three letters in its prayers. Behind the scenes, they also created momentum for the country to demand the legislative fulfillment of JFK’s civil rights wishes.
As Roscoe Drummond predicted in the Boston Globe a day after the assassination, “My judgment is that there will be a great revolution from this act of hideousness and that the movement through Congress of legislation to expand the boundaries of civil rights will proceed ever more rapidly.” He was right.
Ironically, though, it was another master of public relations who, a month after the Kennedy assassination, received the honor of being named Time Magazine Man of the Year, the first black man to be chosen in the magazine’s history. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. received the accolade for his role in leading “the Negro revolution” of 1963. Over time, Dr. King’s image—especially after his assassination in 1968—overshadowed those who had partnered with him and the other civil rights leaders from inside the halls of government.
“It is up to us, the young people, especially Negroes to go to school, and to strive to match the dreams he had for us,” wrote Judith Smith in the Chicago Defender on Nov. 30, 1963. That was me, and my generation, to whom she was speaking. President Kennedy had narrowed the gap between white and black Camelot, so that by 1969, there were 96 black freshmen entering Yale compared to only six black graduates in 1966. It’s not that there were suddenly 90 more qualified candidates; it’s that historically white colleges and universities had by then a model of success to point to: the White House.
“What will happen to the small band of colored New Frontiersman who held key jobs under the President?” Dan Day asked in the Philadelphia Tribune on Nov. 26, 1963. The answer he gave: There would be more. Based on who occupies the White House today, I’d say Day knew what he was talking about.
The generation of black professionals he wrote about were the “survivors of segregation,” as my friend Judge Higginbotham used to say. On this 50th anniversary of the assassination of the president who gave him and dozens of others a shot, let us honor the memory of JFK and those he (and the black men whose advice he heeded) cast in Camelot.
In helping them and each other survive, they made it possible for us, their survivors, to thrive.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.