President John F. Kennedy’s tragic assassination 50 years ago today had a profound impact on American race relations.
A president who, during his last six months in office, acknowledged that “civil rights has become everything” embraced the movement and in the process helped not only to solidify his personal legend but also to transform a nation.
As the nation marks the 50th anniversary, the booming Kennedy industry has gone into overdrive with the release of dozens of books commemorating the man, the glamorous moment in history known as “Camelot” and the conspiracy theories still surrounding his death.
For African Americans, Kennedy remains an icon of the civil rights era. And in the imaginations of a generation of blacks who remember Jim Crow America, Kennedy represented the hope for a new world freed of racial discrimination and segregation.
Martin Luther King Jr., of course, remains the undisputed political mobilizer and civil rights leader of the era. But there is a reason why, after 1968, Kennedy—as well as his younger brother and attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated on June 5, 1968—became regarded as esteemed and iconic martyrs in the black community. The images of JFK, MLK and RFK are forever memorialized in amateur paintings that have taken pride of place on the mantles of black homes from Northeastern inner cities out to Oakland and Los Angeles and large areas in between.
At 43, the youngest man ever to be elected president, Kennedy built his relationship with the black community over time. As a presidential candidate, the young senator from Massachusetts unsuccessfully pursued an endorsement from baseball great and civil rights activist Jackie Robinson. He found better luck with singer and activist Harry Belafonte and tipped the scales of the black vote in his favor largely through a single telephone call to Coretta Scott King, inquiring if he could do anything to aid the incarcerated MLK, during the 1960s campaign.
Kennedy took office in 1961 amid great expectations from the civil rights community but seemed initially hesitant about taking a robust stance on civil rights. He feared, rightfully, that pro-civil rights legislation would stall his wider political agenda, alienate Southern Democrats and risk his re-election chances in 1964.
But racial upheaval around the nation soon forced the president and his brother into action. The 1961 Freedom Rides—integrated groups of activists traveling the South in defiance of segregation—drew a violent backlash in places like Anniston and Birmingham, Ala. The following year, James Meredith’s integration of the University of Mississippi triggered more violence and proved to be a distraction from JFK’s international agenda.
In 1963, though, President Kennedy found his voice on the civil rights front. That year, which marked the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, found King (along with local leader, Fred Shuttlesworth) in Birmingham, helping lead a desegregation campaign. When dogs, fire hoses and overt police brutality routed peaceful demonstrators, Kennedy told reporters at a press conference that what he saw happening in Birmingham made him “sick.”
On June 11, 1963, the president delivered a remarkable nationally televised address on race and democracy that would stand out as Kennedy’s finest moment as president. Calling the issue of civil rights “a moral issue” that required strong political leadership and public policy including a strong civil rights bill, Kennedy gave the boldest speech on race relations ever given by a president up until that time.
He challenged Americans to view the struggle for racial equality as part of the national interest, saying, “Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence” while “those who act boldly are recognizing right as well as reality.” He invited Americans of all backgrounds to engage in a kind of civic activism that reflected the tough work of democracy, arguing that “A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all.” In the same speech, he announced that he would seek to pass comprehensive civil rights legislation and spur school desegregation beyond its frustratingly glacial pace.
In one fell swoop, then, Kennedy placed himself not simply on the side of the civil rights movement, but as one of that movement’s champions. The speech was written by longtime aide Ted Sorenson but edited personally by the president, and adopted the moral language of civil rights leaders, especially King.
“The fires of frustration and discord … burning in every city” that Kennedy spoke of that evening continued to burn throughout the year, reaching their apogee at the decade’s end in a swirl of protests over issues related to race, war and democracy.
And by the time the March on Washington convened on Aug. 28, JFK was rightfully viewed as a powerful ally of the movement.
Kennedy’s evolution on America’s racial crisis had real consequences in life and death. Following Kennedy’s assassination, new President Lyndon B. Johnson, the former Democratic leader in the Senate, was viewed skeptically by civil rights activists. But by the time of his own landslide presidential election in November 1964, Johnson proved to be a masterful legislator and public advocate of racial justice, pushing the Civil Rights Act of which Kennedy spoke to passage through Congress on July 2, 1964, based in part on bipartisan momentum toward honoring Kennedy’s legacy.
Ultimately, the most important part of Kennedy’s legacy may be one that’s rarely acknowledged beyond the aura that surrounds him—revealing a deeper story of a political figure whose perceptions about race were changed by the times in which he lived. Kennedy's finest moment as president showcased his evolution from a cautious politician into a world leader bold enough to deliver perhaps the finest speech ever on race relations.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael will be published next year by Basic Books. Follow him on Twitter.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.