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. . . When found out that this black steamroller going to come down on the capital, they called in Wilkins, they called in Randolph, they called in these national Negro leaders that you respect told them, “Call it off.” Kennedy said, “Look, you all are letting this thing go too far.” And Old Tom said, “Boss, I can’t stop it because I didn’t start it.” . . . They said, “These Negroes are doing things on their own. They’re running ahead of us.” And that old shrewd fox, he said, “If you all aren’t in it, I’ll put you in it. I’ll put you at the head of it. I’ll endorse it. I’ll welcome it. I’ll help it. I’ll join it.” --Malcolm X, November 1963
Arrested on October 19th, 1960 with fifty-two other African Americans in an effort to desegregate Atlanta’s Rich department store, Martin Luther King was immediately re-arrested upon his released. Concluding that by being arrested King had violated a probation that stemmed from an earlier traffic violation, the judge had a significant and possibly decisive impact on the 1960 presidential campaign. By sentencing King to four months of hard labor the judge plunged the nation into a sense of impending crisis as concern for the celebrated civil rights leader’s safety reverberated across the nation and the world.
Occurring during the heat of a tight presidential race between Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Massachusetts Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy, King’s arrest left both camps facing the question of how to respond. Both candidates feared the loss of Southern support by appearing to back African American demands for desegregation and equality. Vice President Nixon was especially torn between making some minimal gesture in an attempt to gain northern black voter support, and remaining silent in order to avoid losing white southern support. If Nixon was seen as coming out strong for black rights then, he perhaps calculated that he would lose key white votes in the states of Texas, South Carolina and Louisiana. For both candidates in the 1960 election it was necessary to walk a delicate balance and be careful not to alienate either the white South or the black North. In September, after Georgia Governor Ernest Vandiver accused Vice-President Nixon of being a member of the NAACP, the candidate tried to avoid the issue by not responding at all. Eventually a campaign spokesman defended Nixon saying that he had only been made an honorary member and had never contributed financially or had otherwise supported the civil rights organization.
A draft of a supportive statement of King’s release was aborted by the Eisenhower White House and ultimately, Nixon failed to issue a statement in support of releasing King immediately. John F. Kennedy, shifting from initial plans to issue a strong statement protesting King’s sentence anticipating a negative white Southern response, first reached an agreement with Governor Ernest Vandiver. Vandiver committed himself to obtaining the release of King, whom he termed “the son of a bitch,” in exchange for a promise that no statement would be issued. Harris Wofford, a personal friend of the King family, responding to a desperate phone call from Coretta Scott King, recommended that Kennedy visit Mrs. King to express sympathy. This symbolic act was opposed by the candidate’s younger brother, Robert F. Kennedy, who viewed it as threatening the loss of key southern states in the upcoming election. Finally, Kennedy followed Wofford’s suggestion, and telephoned Coretta Scott King.
Kennedy’s symbolic gesture solidified his support among blacks, and encouraged a high black voter turnout. Martin Luther King, Sr., prominent in his own right, switched his allegiance to Kennedy. Until Kennedy’s phone call, the father of Martin Luther King, Jr. had opposed Kennedy because of the candidate’s Catholicism. Reverend King declared, “[B]ecause this man was willing to wipe the tears from my daughter’s eyes, I’ve got a suitcase of votes, and I’m going to take them to Mr. Kennedy and dump them in his lap.” The Kennedy campaign moved quickly to take advantage of the political bonanza flowing from the phone call as one million pamphlets celebrating Kennedy’s act were distributed around the nation in African American communities. One half million were given out in Chicago alone. Outside the African-American churches throughout the nation on the Sunday prior to the election these pamphlets were handed out. A key aspect of the effectiveness of this last-minute electoral gambit was that African Americans would learn of Kennedy’s role in freeing King while white southerners generally would not.
The importance of Kennedy’s timely symbolic gesture as well as the decisive role of the African American vote to his successful campaign are illustrated by the narrowness of his victory. In Illinois, Kennedy, winning by only 9,000 votes, found the 250,000 black votes in the state indispensable. Similarly, Kennedy’s victory in South Carolina by only 10,000 votes, was made possible by an estimated 40,000 black votes. Overall, African Americans gave Kennedy 70 percent of their votes, enabling him to achieve a narrow victory over the Republican Nixon.
Enabling John F. Kennedy to capture the presidency by their support helped raise their already sky-high hopes for progress to a new level. Moreover, Kennedy’s intervention in a local southern crisis situation fueled the belief that a future Kennedy administration would stand by the side of African Americans and their demands for racial justice. The new president’s rhetorical ability, his youthful image, and his charisma only added to the impression that his administration would mark a sharp break with the past.
John F. Kennedy’s great-grandparents came to America from Ireland in the mid-1800s, along with thousands of others, fleeing famine and misery. The unskilled Patrick Kennedy, John F. Kennedy’s great-grandfather, died only ten years after coming to the country. His son, Patrick Joseph Kennedy, built a thriving saloon and liquor distribution business which eventually thrust him into the world of banking, real estate, and mining. Marrying the daughter of a prosperous bar owner and entering into politics, “P. J.,” launched the family toward their eventual place in the American establishment. After becoming a ward boss, Kennedy was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives at the age of 28. In 1887, he married the daughter of a prosperous bar owner. Their first child, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, was the father of John F. Kennedy.
The Harvard-educated Joseph Kennedy was involved in banking, and the illegal liquor commerce of the Prohibition era. Mob boss Frank Costello admitted his partnership with Kennedy during the 1920‘s and early 1930‘s. Marrying Rose Fitzgerald, whose father “Honey Fitz” was Boston’s mayor, the upwardly mobile Kennedy drove a Rolls Royce and was already a multi-millionaire through his investments in the stock market, real estate holdings, and illegal activities in liquor commerce.
John F. Kennedy was born on May 29, 1917 in Brookline, Massachusetts on the outskirts of Boston. The principal heir, following his older brother Joe’s death, to a family tradition of political leadership, “Jack” Kennedy was carefully groomed and guided by his father, who also served as ambassador to Great Britain during the Depression. The senior Kennedy micro-managed his children’s educational, career, social, and recreational development, shepherding them with a careful attention to detail. Of these years, Robert F. Kennedy recalled their attitude with respect to the status and conditions faced by the mass of African Americans. “I don’t think that it was a matter that we were extra-concerned about as we were growing up. There wasn’t any great problem.”
Launching his political career following World War Two as a young congressman Kennedy rented a three-story home in Washington D.C.’s Georgetown section. Enjoying a facade of independence, during this period had a staff of two servants, the family cook, and a valet, an African American. Nevertheless, Kennedy remained under the careful guidance of his father. Later, setting out to capture the Senate seat held by Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., whose grandfather had clashed with Kennedy’s politically, Joseph Kennedy smoothed the way by virtually buying key endorsements. The elder Kennedy induced Joe McCarthy to cease campaigning for Lodge by a hefty donation to his political machine. At the same time he loaned the editor of The Boston Post a cool half million, obtaining its endorsement in the process. In the end, Kennedy won the senatorial race by 70,000 votes obtaining 51.5 percent of the vote.
As an emerging national figure, the young Kennedy was not especially liberal. Indeed, Kennedy and liberals harbored a mutual suspicion early on. While he courted liberals such as Chester Bowles in order to broaden his political support, he expressed considerable discomfort over being labeled as a liberal declaring, “ I’d be very happy to tell them I’m not a liberal at all.”
As were the majority of his presidential predecessors, John F. Kennedy’s views on race were conservative and heavily influenced by traditional anti-black accounts of the Reconstruction era. As late as 1956, he adhered to a view of Reconstruction that harshly condemned the northern role. In his Profiles in Courage, Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, who Truman also deplored, is described as “the crippled, fanatical personification of the extremes of the Radical Republic movement.” Similarly Kennedy condemned the genuinely anti-slavery Charles Sumner as “the South’s most implacable enemy” who helped make Reconstruction “a black nightmare the South could never forget.” Yet, while Kennedy attempted to obscure his views on desegregation, upholding the Brown decision, he did not completely hide them from white southern audiences.
As Kennedy emerged as a serious presidential contender, his views on civil rights were becoming clearer. Facing his first major political test of his commitment to racial equality in 1956 when the Senate debated a civil rights bill, Kennedy allied himself with the Southern Democrats who sent the bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose chairman Senator James Eastland of Mississippi was a fierce opponent of black equality. While Kennedy supported the aspect of the bill that gave the attorney general the power to intervene in civil rights cases, he also supported weakening measures allowing jury trials to those who violate African-American voting rights. This provision strengthened the southern elite’s ability and resolve to continue to deny African Americans basic political rights.
Kennedy’s pro-southern stance earned him the criticism of black leaders with the NAACP denouncing him for supporting the jury trial amendment to the civil rights bill. Roy Wilkins of the NAACP attacked Kennedy for “rubbing political elbows” with the segregationist enemies of civil rights. Ultimately, after privately admitting to having erred in supporting the amendment, Kennedy won the support of the NAACP. In contrast, Nixon’s 1952 campaign for president took positions against the poll tax and segregation in the District of Columbia while supporting anti-lynching legislation. By the time of the 1960 presidential campaign Nixon could boast such prominent black supporters as Martin Luther King, Sr. who, prior to his son’s arrest and release from jail during the 1960 campaign, was constitutionally unable to vote for a Catholic.
The 1960 Presidential Campaign: A Turning Point for Black Electoral Power
By the time the delegates convened for the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, African Americans already viewed Kennedy with a suspicious eye. Kennedy appeared more liberal, however, by comparison with Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson, his chief rival for the nomination. Significantly, New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell refused to support Kennedy citing a clandestine meeting the candidate had with the racist zealots of the Alabama White Citizens Council. Nevertheless, Kennedy’s promise in his nomination acceptance speech to abolish racial discrimination in the nation drew favorable reviews from most civil rights leaders..
Committing himself, if elected, to use the office’s “immense moral authority” to the advance the cause of civil rights Kennedy on occasion would display open sympathy with the burgeoning sit-in movement sweeping across the south. Yet, he generally declined to make concrete commitments on civil rights issues attempting to balance the demands of this southern white constituency with those of his northern black constituency, promising each side as much as he felt he was able to. Senator Kennedy’s promises to be a moral force for civil rights were balanced by the face-to-face pledges made by his brother Robert F. Kennedy to southern delegates pledging the future Kennedy administration’s opposition to illegal sit-in demonstrations. This directly contradicted the candidate’s supportive assertion that sit-ins were consistent with “American tradition” “even if the new way is to sit down.”
The selection of Lyndon Baines Johnson as Kennedy’s vice presidential running mate was, in large part, an effort to garner more southern support. The Texan’s selection elicited widespread consternation among liberals and advocates of black equality. The National Urban League’s Whitney Young, however, remained optimistic despite the well-known support for segregation that Johnson display in the past. “Some of the best liberals I know are reconstructed southerners,” Young commented. Kennedy shored up his reputation with liberals by public appearances before them, favorably impressing them with statements such as, “Moral persuasion by the President can be more effective than force in ending discrimination against Negroes.”
Offering a tantalizing vision of his presidency before eyes of candidate-starved blacks, Kennedy on July 10, 1960, addressed a NAACP rally in Los Angeles. The presidential candidate identified himself with “courage and candor” on the civil rights issue brooking “no compromise of basic principles--no evasion of basic controversies--and no second class citizenship for any American.” The Democratic candidate boldly declared:
Our job is to turn the American vision of a society in which no man has to suffer discrimination based on race into a living reality everywhere in our land. And that means we must secure to every American equal access to all parts of our public life—to the voting booth, to the schoolroom, to jobs, to housing, to all public facilities including lunch counters.
Adopting some of the most racially liberal positions ever for a major American presidential candidate, Kennedy indicated his support of open housing. He stressed, above all, his view that strong, unflinching presidential leadership to advance black civil rights was necessary:
The next President of the United States cannot stand above the battle engaging in vague little sermons on brotherhood. The immense moral authority of the White House must be used to offer leadership and inspiration to those of every race and section who recognize their responsibilities. And the immense legal authority of the White House must be used to direct implementation of all constitutional rights, protection of the right to vote, fulfillment of the requirement of school desegregation, and an end to discrimination in the government’s own midst—in public contracts, in employment and in all federal housing programs.
Senator Kennedy’s speech entitled “The Standard of John C. Calhoun” delivered in Columbia, South Carolina included an extended comparison of two “great” American senators, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. Calhoun, anti-black to the point of hatred, worked throughout his life to maintain slavery and all of its horrors. Kennedy deftly used Calhoun as a not-so-subtle symbol of his appeal to their sympathies and prejudices. This tactic allowed Kennedy to play the race card without having to resort to more explicit anti-black statements or actions.
In a manner recalling his earlier description of Reconstruction in Profiles in Courage, Kennedy lauded Calhoun’s accomplishments in the areas of foreign relations, national development, and fiscal policy. Quoting approvingly Webster on the subject of Calhoun’s “powerful mind” and “courage,” Kennedy professed admiration for Calhoun, fondly recalling his chairmanship of a committee to pick “five outstanding senators in the history of this country. “ Kennedy stated, “ John C. Calhoun’s name led all the rest.” Later, when he authored a book focused on “courageous senators “ Calhoun was featured prominently. Kennedy expressed the fervent hope that “in 1960, South Carolina and the nation will be guided by the spirit of Calhoun and his courage.“
Hammered out at their national convention in Chicago, the original Republican platform, unlike the Democratic, failed to express support for the sit-in movements or efforts to end employment discrimination. However, the Nixon and Rockefeller forces revised the Republican plank, softening its official hostility to black interests. This vacillation was perhaps fatal since the original platform if maintained would have held more appeal to the party’s southern and anti-African American constituency as it promised continued respect for states’ rights and deference to southern white interests. Several observers maintain that Nixon squandered an opportunity to appeal to southern racism in 1960 by directly attacking the aims of the black freedom movement. Nixon did not stress his basic opposition to “forced integration,” and endorsed civil rights for African Americans.
When Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy met in June 1960, King was reportedly impressed after learning that two prominent white liberal friends were on Kennedy’s campaign staff. King found Kennedy as concerned, “forthright and honest” but lacking understanding of the nation’s racial situation. King recommended strongly that Kennedy do “something dramatic” to make clear to African Americans his sincere commitment to civil rights. King also proposed that he and the presidential candidate hold a public meeting in the South. Since, chumminess with an African American would derail Kennedy’s “southern strategy,” alienating white Southerners, Kennedy rejected the suggestion. For his part, King refused to endorse any candidate, in his effort to remain above partisan politics. Instead he sought to be “the conscience of both--not the servant or master of either.” King maintained a determined neutrality, pointing out the major faults of both candidates and the history of broken promises to black Americans by politicians. The African American leader commented that “both major parties have been hypocritical on the question of civil rights” and have used African Americans as “a political football.”
During the campaign Kennedy pledged in segregation and discrimination in federal housing with a “stroke of a presidential pen” soon after he took office. The Massachusetts senator gave African Americans the impression that he would forthrightly attack segregation and discrimination throughout the nation very promising “innovative legislation” to foster integrated education and guarantee African American political rights, is no wonder that black hopes for a Kennedy administration skyrocketed. In contrast, Nixon’s “moderate” position on civil rights not only failed to win over significant numbers of black people but more importantly, from his perspective, did not provide sufficient incentive for southern whites to vote for him either.
By criticizing Eisenhower’s lack of support for decolonization in Africa and by making other positive policy statements on Africa Kennedy won more black and white liberal support while not losing inattentive white southern supporters. Nevertheless, the Kennedy administration continued traditional American support for the colonialists in Africa as well as direct support for the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Amid the lofty phrases and rhetoric of President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address none directly addressed the specific concerns, hopes, and aspirations of African Americans. Nevertheless, President Kennedy in his eloquence managed to evoke the powerful images of a nation dedicated to freedom throughout the world.
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
Within the first two weeks of the new administration, Martin Luther King wrote in The Nation that the president had a great opportunity to make radical departure on civil rights. Outlining and comprehensive agenda on African American interests for the new president, King urged that the president begin by acknowledging that the moral “principle is no longer in doubt.” Secondly, the African American leader urged a “recognition by the federal government that it has sufficient power at its disposal to guide us through the changes ahead,” attributing the snail’s pace of civil rights progress in part to the restraint of the federal government.
King recommended three priorities for the Kennedy administration to address. First, King urged “resolute presidential leadership” in the legislative arena by the use of the formidable array of persuasive tactics in order to get vital civil rights legislation passed. Second, King urged President Kennedy to use “moral persuasion” since as “the embodiment of the democratic personality of the nation” the president’s “own personal contact influences and educates.” Third, and most importantly, King urged Kennedy to make full use of executive orders. King wrote that:
Historically, the executive has promulgated orders of extraordinary range and significance. . . Executive orders could require the immediate end to all discrimination in any housing accommodations financed with federal aid. Executive orders could prohibit any contractor dealing with any federal agency from practicing discrimination in employment by requiring (a) cancellation of existing contracts, (b) and/or barring violators from bidding, (c) and/or calling in of government loans of federal funds extended to violators. . .
King pointed out that executive orders could also immediately end racial bias in employment in federal agencies and departments. Officials of the National Urban League also pressed Kennedy for quick action to assuage black anger over past, present, and anticipated future racism. Issuing a statement entitled, “The Time is Now,” they called for Kennedy to act in the areas of “employment, housing, education and public welfare.” They reminded the president of his campaign promise to end discrimination in federal housing programs “by the stroke of a presidential pen.” President Kennedy’s realized their wishes by the issuance of a long-awaited executive order on “Equal Opportunity in Housing” on November 20, 1962. The limitations of the measure, however, grated on some critics with the limited scope and the provisions for coverage of the order coming under fire.
History did not allow Kennedy’s policies to be implemented in a vacuum. The violence against the Freedom Riders and CORE as well as the atmosphere of national crisis were not anticipated by the Kennedy administration. The course of events coupled with Martin Luther King’s decision to make Kennedy a “project,” –a special object of his attention–helped gradually reshape the president’s views on issues involving race and justice. Kennedy’s shakiness can be seen during the first weeks of his administration in his response to complaints by African diplomats who experienced the cruelty of segregation first-hand. After restaurants refused them food, water and other amenities on a highway near Washington, DC Kennedy asked an aide, “Can’t you tell them not to do it?” The aide who believed Kennedy was referring to the restaurant owners who barred blacks from entry responded that he was trying to persuade them to allow blacks, the president interrupted him to tell him that he was instead asking could he not prevent the African ambassadors not to drive on the road. “That’s not what I’m calling about. Can’t you tell these African ambassadors not to drive on Route 40? It’s a hell of a road. . . .Tell these ambassadors I wouldn't think of driving from New York to Washington. Tell them to fly!”
The refusal to commit himself more to the causes so dear to African Americans was an important factor in the persistence of President Kennedy’s relatively high standing in the polls in the South. While the Kennedy administration shared with the vast majority of its predecessors in the White House a “state’s rights” position contending that it was beyond the scope of the constitutional powers of the federal government to extend protection to African American civil rightrs workers in the South, events repeatedly forced its hand. Following the crisis surrounding James Meredith’s enrollment in the University of Mississippi, events which further diminished Kennedy’s stature in King’s eyes, the president’s views underwent rapid change. His old pro-southern sympathies began to be shed as he witnessed the irrationality of the white resistance to desegregation. Particularly devastating to his old pro-southern sympathies was the revelation that the Mississippi state legislature issued a report blaming the crisis entirely on the federal government. Never again could President Kennedy fully accept the pro-southern version of Reconstruction.
By late 1962, the Kennedy administration increasingly formulated recommendations for black action that avoided a direct attack on the segregationist and racist structures that would engender the greatest consternation from resistant whites. One sign of this was the Kennedy administration’s increasing emphasis on black economic progress, “self-help” efforts, and on voluntarism. Increasingly, black leadership concluded that Kennedy was stalling on racial progress. Following a mid-December 1962 meeting with President Kennedy, one civil rights leader complained of receiving “the best snow job in history” and of losing two years “because we admired him [the president] for what should have been done years ago.” Another leader saw a shift in strategy looming, “. . .[W]e shouldn’t have been here. We’ve got to quit begging the Kennedys for this and that. We’ve got to start demanding our rights.”
Kennedy’s adroit maneuvering allowed him to largely maintain his southern support for the great proportion of his abbreviated presidency. A total of 50 percent of those interviewed in the south indicated that they supported Kennedy’s 1961 decision to intervene in Montgomery, Alabama with federal marshals. A September 1962 Gallup poll revealed that Kennedy was almost as popular in the South as in the rest of the nation. While 68 percent of the North approved of his performance, slightly less in the south did so, 65 percent.
A The Nation article by Martin Luther King in early 1963 accused the Kennedy administration of holding back civil rights progress. King complained that the “demand for progress was somehow drained of its moral imperative, and the issue no longer commanded the conscience of the nation as it had in previous years.” The increasing tensions between the Kennedy administration and the African American community reached a boiling point at an seemingly unlikely place, author James Baldwin’s New York apartment. Jerome Smith, a SNCC activist angered Robert F. Kennedy by his vehement denunciation of the administration’s actions and inactions in the South. In a discussion which included entertainer Harry Belafonte and other activists, Kennedy found himself under fierce attack. The increasingly leftward drift of the civil rights movement was reflected in Smith’s statement to Kennedy that he would never fight for America. Kennedy was deeply dismayed by this attitude and upon returning to his office, ordered the FBI to investigate his fellow discussants and shared his findings with his brother John. He later gave his version of events in the apartment to historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.:
They didn’t know anything. They don’t know what the laws are—they don’t know what the facts are—they don’t know what we’ve been doing or what we’re trying to do. You couldn’t talk to them as you can to Roy Wilkins or Martin Luther King. . . It was all emotion, hysteria. They stood up and orated. They cursed. Some of them wept and walked out of the room.
By early 1963 the broad array of civil rights forces had become disillusioned with the Kennedy administration’s pace of civil rights measures. Instead of the full-fledged civil rights legislation they expected they only received a series of watered-down and cautious measures geared to the perceived political realities the Kennedy administration faced. Measures to end employment discrimination and provisions for drastically lower rates of unemployment, enforcement of voting rights and immediate desegregation of schools was expected by civil rights forces. Adding to the anger felt by pro-civil rights forces was the appointment of committed segregationists to the southern judiciary.
In mid-March 1962, the Nonviolent Action Group of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee staged a sit-in at Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s office. No arrests were ordered as Kennedy was wary of unfavorable publicity as well as the potential for a snowballing of the conflict with civil rights activists. This reflected a SNCC strategy of exposing the federal actions that, directly or indirectly, aided southern racists in stonewalling the demands of African Americans for justice.1 To his credit, Kennedy eventually admitted that the black activism had forced him to make more progressive civil-rights moves and he would have in the absence of such pressure.
Soon afterwards, June 11, 1963, President Kennedy reflected and contributed to African American progress with an historic speech that identified the civil rights struggle as “a moral issue” that was “as old as the Scriptures and . . . as clear as the American Constitution.” African Americans greeted Kennedy speech with enthusiasm, Martin Luther King lauded it by describing it as “the most earnest, human and profound appeal for understanding and justice that any President has uttered since the first days of the Republic.”
It is hardly surprising that SNCC workers formed the perception that the administration of President John F. Kennedy was kowtowing to southern racist political power. SNCC leader Robert Moses, testified before a congressional subcommittee that the organization did not agree with the compromise proposed by the pending voting rights legislation requiring a sixth grade education as sufficient proof of literacy, a feature that would still disproportionately disfranchise blacks. After all, the SNCC leader reasoned, their illiteracy was a result of a grossly unequal educational system.
Deeply moved by the dramatic events in Birmingham, President Kennedy addressed the nation on June 11, 1963 and announced the submission of a new civil rights bill to Congress. Kennedy contended that the United States 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.” He stressed the imperative of upholding the United States’ image internationally as a motivation for striving for racial justice. He stated that it “ought to be possible for American consumers of any color to receive equal service in places of public accommodation” “without being forced to resort to demonstrations in the street.” Presenting detailed statistics on racial inequality between black and white, Kennedy argued that it is an issue for the nation as a whole not merely a sectional one.
Perhaps heeding the counsel of Martin Luther King, who had earlier vowed to raise his consciousness, Kennedy described the cause of racial justice in moral terms declaring, “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue” one “as old as the Scriptures” and “as clear as the American Constitution.” He asked whites to empathize with the individual African American who suffered from these prohibitions in all spheres of life. Using his formidable powers of persuasion Kennedy asked, “who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?” Clearly, Kennedy’s effort to influence the civil rights movement failed; King’s and the civil rights movements’ effort to change Kennedy succeeded.
In late June 1963 President Kennedy met with A. Phillip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young at the White House. Kennedy pushed unsuccessfully for a halt to the mass demonstrations that had forced him to become more aggressive in pursuit of black civil rights. He felt that continued protest would facilitate Southern success in Congress in marshaling opposition to the measure. Arguing that legislators would be more reluctant to support the bill if they felt they were being threatened to do so by force, he acknowledged that the protests, as well as the brutality of “Bull” Connor, had succeeded in creating a situation favorable to the civil rights bill. Now, however, Congress must be allowed “a fair chance to work its will.”
Following the departure of the others Kennedy and King had a private conversation. The president asked King about the reports from the FBI and Senator James Eastland of Mississippi about Communist support of the civil rights movement. Telling King that he was being watched, Kennedy pointed the finger at Stanley Levison and Jack O’Dell, King advisors, terming them “Communists.” President Kennedy added, “You’ve got to get rid of them.” Four months later, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy approved a FBI wiretap on King’s Atlanta home.
While the implied threat behind Kennedy’s warnings bothered King somewhat, he was more than heartened by the victories now being won in rapid succession. In 1963, a wave of black activism, taking the newly popular forms of sit-ins, demonstrations, marches, and boycotts, swept the south, and, increasingly, the north. One estimate, by the Southern Regional Council, was that 930 “public protest demonstrations” occurred in 115 cities in 11 states during 1963. Victory after victory was registered by the African American civil rights movement as barriers of segregation and exclusion tumbled one after the other. In King’s view this was but the culmination of the long struggle previously manifested slave revolts, and other efforts. Now African Americans were on the move, seemingly an unstoppable force as every week new battles were engaged by militant activists. King had no illusions, the victories were achieved by these efforts of the African American people, while the new measures taken by President Kennedy represented the fruit of these efforts.
Nonetheless, African Americans were themselves transformed by their new thrust for basic civil rights and the white resistance to their demands. Racial polarization became more evident as whites increasingly concluded that blacks wanted progress “too fast” at the same time that blacks were increasingly impatient with the status quo and the pace of progress. In September 1963, the Gallup Poll indicated his approval rating in the South had plummeted from 60 percent in March 1963 to 44 percent in September 1963 as some 70 percent of Southern whites felt that his pursuit of integration was too hurried.
The prestige of black nationalist politics grew steadily in the north. The emergence of Malcolm X as the preeminent African American nationalist occurred within the context of his sharp critique of the actions and philosophy of the civil rights movement. Through this evolving critique of the leadership of Martin Luther King and his philosophy of non-violence a restructuring of black nationalist political action and thought was molded.
African-Americans perhaps even more than other Americans were profoundly shocked and saddened by the November 22nd, 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Elijah Muhammad, leader of the rapidly growing Nation of Islam organization ordered his national staff of Muslim ministers not to comment on the 47 year-old president’s assassination. His most prominent minister, Malcolm X, violated this policy when he observed in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination that “chickens come home to roost.” In a speech entitled, “God’s Judgment of White America,” the Muslim minister spoke on the theme of reaping what one sows. He described, “how the hypocritical American white man was reaping what he had sowed.” Malcolm X later recalled, “. . .I said that the hate in white men had not stopped with the killing of defenseless black people, but that hate, allowed to spread unchecked, finally had struck down this country’s Chief of State. I said it was the same thing as had happened with Medgar Evers, with Patrice Lumumba, with Madame Nhu’s husband.” This act of disobedience by Malcolm X was of historic importance, leading to his suspension and expulsion from the Nation of Islam and setting the stage for his own assassination.
©Christopher Brian Booker, 2014.