President John F. Kennedy’s tragic assassination 50 years ago this week 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 on Nov. 22, 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 Kennedy, who was assassinated June 5, 1968 — became regarded as esteemed and iconic martyrs in the black community.
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.
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.
In 1963, though, 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.
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.
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 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, Kennedy 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 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.