Grieving the Bystander

According to scholar and journalist Nick Bryant, when, on 22 November 1963, news came that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas, African-Americans “felt the loss of their president just as strongly as whites, and arguably more so.”  He notes that “Of the 300,000 mourners who filed past Kennedy’s casket in the Capitol rotunda, Jet [magazine] estimated a third were black.” According to research surveys “Negroes showed more sorrow, a greater sense of personal loss, and more physical symptoms than white respondents” and as measured on a grief index “the Negro increase was much greater than that of whites.” (Kennedy Assassination and the American Public, Bradley S. Greenberg and Edwin B. Parker, Stanford University Press, 1965)

So ubiquitous was the feeling of a kind of profound loss that “even strident black critics” of Kennedy expressed kind encomiums to the fallen president. James Farmer, leader of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) remarked that he expected historians would concur that the Kennedy administration’s civil rights program “was the strongest of any” chief executive in American history.  In the past century, according to Farmer, JFK was the only president who looked upon civil rights as “basically a moral issue and one that had to be dealt with quickly.  That, I think, was his beautiful legacy.”

For all the sadness felt by African-Americans, however, Kennedy’s funeral contained a powerful message suggesting that, where American race relations were concerned, perhaps less had changed during the thousand days of Camelot than the outpouring of grief by blacks would seem to suggest. The Kennedy family did not invite Roy Wilkins, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), or Whitney Young, head of the National Urban League, to the procession and they only received invitations after Lyndon Johnson became aware of that fact. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the most influential men in America and generally recognized as the nation’s foremost Civil Rights leader, was not invited to the ceremony at all and watched it from the sidewalk.

In his book The Bystander: John F. Kennedy and the Struggle for Civil Rights (Basic Books, 2006), Nick Bryant  argues persuasively that, as president, Kennedy was lukewarm at best to the idea of actively supporting the efforts of civil rights activists and that his concern for the mass of poor and working class African-Americans was minimal.  Moreover, with the exception of making the White House, for the first time in American history, a place to which blacks were routinely invited and where they were regularly seen, Kennedy’s accomplishments in the area of civil rights were fairly modest. Thus there would seem to be something of a disconnect between Kennedy’s actual civil rights record and the great esteem in which he was held by African-Americans.

That disconnect is worth examining. Looking at it requires that we know more than we have hitherto about what the reactions of African-Americans were to Kennedy’s murder, for while Bryant is correct to say that blacks felt a great sense of loss, apparently no detailed history of their reactions to the assassination has ever been published. Although more research ought to be done on this subject, a preliminary look here at African-Americans’ reactions to Kennedy’s assassination will, I hope, contribute to forming a firmer ground on which to further our understanding of the social and cultural dynamics that were at work in the matter of how American blacks felt about their president. (Note: There is one facet of the African-American reaction to the Kennedy assassination that has received close attention: the production of songs about Kennedy’s death by black Blues and Gospel artists and singers. At least 59 such songs were recorded. See Guido Van Rijn, Kennedy’s Blues: African-American Blues and Gospel Songs on J. F. K., University Press of Mississippi, 2007).


When Kennedy took office as president, African-Americans seemingly had good reason to be somewhat optimistic about the prospect for substantive enhancements of their civil rights. The Democratic Party Platform of 1960 included a strong Civil Rights section that was largely taken from the “Program for Civil Rights—1960” produced by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, an “ad hoc coalition” of civil liberties and civil rights organizations that was established for the purpose of influencing the national political party platforms. It called for voting rights protection, abolition of literacy tests, an end to discriminatory practices in federal housing, a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, a permanent commission on Civil Rights, Federal support of the Supreme Court decision regarding the desegregation of schools, and protection of the rights of citizens to travel and engage in business without regard to race. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the Democrats’ civil rights statement “an historic and sweeping … pronouncement.”  During the presidential campaign Kennedy had pledged to stop, by executive order, racial discrimination in housing. Late in the campaign, when King was being held at the Georgia state prison, Kennedy endeared himself to many African-Americans when he phoned Coretta King to express his concern and support. In the general election Kennedy received between 70-80 percent of the black vote.

But it was a long time before Kennedy made what could be called a strong stand on civil rights. During his first two years in office his promise to end housing discrimination went unfulfilled and he had not actively sought the development of comprehensive civil rights legislation. While Kennedy’s standing with blacks did not plummet, it did suffer somewhat, and suspicion grew that the president’s interest in African-Americans was mostly limited to manipulating them for their political support. At the time of his death though, Kennedy’s reputation as a civil rights reformer had been burnished by introduction of his long-awaited civil rights bill on 2 April 1963 and by his televised major civil rights speech of 11 June.

Reaction to the Kennedy assassination among blacks in general

In early December, 1963, the Chicago Defender printed a photograph of a 15 year old African-American girl standing in front of an image of John F. Kennedy. The girl, Marion Knox, had also written a letter which was printed next to her photograph. “There are no words,” she wrote “to express the sorrow and grief of the loss of a man and leader so great as John F. Kennedy.” To young Marion, he was “a second Lincoln.” Nine year old Margo Peterson of the Bronx, whose photograph appeared in Jet magazine in mid December, would perhaps have agreed with Marion. In response to the death of this “very special man,” Margo wrote, “We were all sad, as sad as could be / On November 22nd, 1963.”

If not all African-American adults used such strong language to describe their feelings about Kennedy’s murder, many certainly did do so, and the evidence suggests that most others did not hesitate to say that they experienced the assassination as something of a profound loss. A front-page headline in the Los Angeles Sentinel read “Like Being ‘Orphaned’: Minorities Mourn Kennedy.” Jet magazine told of an African-American woman who was journeying from Buffalo to Washington, D.C. in order to watch Kennedy’s funeral procession. The woman “Tearfully” explained that she had been acquainted with Kennedy’s grandfather and that “she ‘loved’” the late President. A man identified as an African-American taxi driver in New York was quoted as saying that “When my father died, I didn’t shed a tear until the funeral was almost over.” After Kennedy was killed, however, “I cried so much I couldn’t drive this cab. … I didn’t know I could love a white man that much.” In the Central Avenue area of Los Angeles, resident Ann Ennis stated that people in the African-American community there were “really depressed”; Pauline Ford described the assassination as the “most awful thing” to occur during her lifetime; and Henry Woods said that he still felt “shock” at the loss of “a great man.” Jet ran an item about an episode in the life of the recently deceased Ernie Davis. The college football star had met President Kennedy in 1961 and described the encounter as “the greatest thrill of my life.” Jacob L. Reddix, president of Jackson State College, remarked that Kennedy’s life “was a sort of reincarnation of all the national virtues that our forefathers would have wished to have preserved in the future leadership of the nation.”

That African-Americans were profoundly affected by the Kennedy assassination can be seen in the results of two opinion polls taken shortly after the event. Among African-Americans, 49 percent, as against 30 percent of respondents overall, thought that “they were more upset” about the assassination than were “’most people.’” About 66 percent of African-Americans, compared to 38 percent of total respondents, concurred with the assertion that “they were ‘so confused and upset, they didn’t know what to feel.’”  Moreover, “half of the African-Americans surveyed,” as against one-fifth of respondents overall, worried about how Kennedy’s death might impact their lives and economic security.  According to the research summarized by Greenberg and Parker, in the aftermath of the assassination African-Americans “were more concerned than whites about their own lives, jobs, and futures … Many wondered whether anyone was really safe anymore.”

As with the American scene in general, the assassination caused so much shock and grief among blacks that for many people normal routines were momentarily altered to allow for personal and collective grieving. The NAACP sponsored a nationwide memorial service. On 25 November, in Jackson, Mississippi, “more than 2000 mourning Negroes filed silently” into the Lynch Street Masonic Temple for a memorial service. That same day in Georgia, all six colleges of the Atlanta University Center (Spelman, Clark, Morehouse, Morris Brown, Atlanta University, the Interdenominational Theological Center) suspended classes in order to conduct memorials honoring Kennedy. The many sporting events that were cancelled or postponed included the Harlem Globetrotters’ Chicago debut for the 1963-1964 season. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Nina Simone all cancelled multiple concert engagements. Upon hearing of the assassination Basie “walked off the set” of the film Sex and the Single Girl in tears. Although he had never met Kennedy, Ellington “admired” him “very much” and felt as though a friend had died. “I simply could not go on” after Kennedy’s murder, Ellington related, and, he went on, “Everybody in the band felt the same way I did.” Jet reported that comedian Dick Gregory “dropped everything … hopped a jet and flew to Washington” for Kennedy’s funeral. Former heavyweight boxing champion Jersey Joe Walcott drove to Washington from Jersey City and stood in line for hours to see the casket of the “great man.”

Many black mourners of the president believed that he had actively promoted their cause.  Mrs. Ford asserted that Kennedy was “the only man who was really for the Negro.” Pastor H. H. Brookins told a memorial service audience at the People’s Independent Church in Los Angeles that “Negroes feel a peculiar loss,” because Kennedy “identified with our plight or struggle” and he had been “a gigantic fighter for our cause.” “We lost,” Brookins said, “a member of our family.” Benjamin Mays, president of Morehouse College, related that he believed Kennedy was on a path to “becoming one of America’s greatest Presidents.” Mays thought the late president’s positions on civil rights “were beyond politics” and that he had “fought for civil rights out of real conviction.” No other American president, Mays claimed, had “spoken so courageously and so forthrightly on civil rights as Kennedy. … Negro Americans have lost their best friend in high office.” Broadcast journalist Mal Goode believed Kennedy had “proved his fitness for the kingdom of God with his untiring efforts to erase discrimination and bigotry from our country.” The St. Louis American argued that while all Americans grieved the loss of the president, maybe “the 20 million Negro Americans felt it more keenly because for the first time since Abraham Lincoln” the United States president “was indeed a champion of civil rights.”

The black press

Seemingly universally, African-American newspaper editors and journalists saw the Kennedy assassination as a tragedy that had cut down a “great” and “brilliant” man whom history would judge as one of America’s greatest presidents. Like the one penned by L. M. Meriwether, most tributes to Kennedy in the black press praised the late president for his ostensible commitment to advancing the rights of African-Americans. In an item distributed by the Associated Negro Press (ANP), Enoc Waters wrote that “since Emancipation, only the late Franklin Delano Roosevelt approached the confidence of Negroes … enjoyed by President Kennedy.” By “taking a firmer stand in behalf of civil rights for Negroes by word and by deed” than any of his predecessors, Kennedy had assisted in the shaping of “a climate for the materialization of the Negro revolution.” The Atlanta Daily World, Jet, and Ebony emphasized that Kennedy possessed virtues and talents that had been employed in, and that would be very beneficial to, the African-American struggle for equal rights. In the estimation of the ANP Kennedy had contributed more to the struggle for civil rights than any previous president. Brad Pye, Jr. credited the late president with inspiring the dream of racial justice.  Stanley Scott bemoaned the loss of “The Negroes best friend.” Lionel Newsom did as well. For him it was “the darkest hour in American history.”

Civil rights leaders

The reactions of civil rights leaders to the Kennedy assassination matched those of other African-Americans. For A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, “It is a sad thing for the whole country and the world. It was a shocking tragedy.” Kennedy’s murder “has wounded the hearts of the whole liberal world and the struggle of people for decency, human dignity, and freedom.” NAACP lawyer Constance Motley thought that with Kennedy’s death African-Americans had lost “the greatest presidential advocate” of equal rights to appear in the twentieth century. Charles Evers, leader of the Mississippi NAACP, asserted that Kennedy was “the greatest friend that America ever had … the greatest friend the world ever had.” Reverend R. L. T. Smith, a civil rights leader in Jackson, Mississippi, predicted that Kennedy’s “heroic life” would inspire future generations to agitate for freedom. Art Silvers, recently elected chairman of CORE, directed a public memorial in Los Angeles at which Mahalia Jackson reportedly “spoke movingly” of Kennedy “and his achievements for world peace and racial equality.” Martin Luther King, Jr., released a statement that read in part: “I am shocked and griefstricken (sic).” He expressed high praise for Kennedy, a man of “vision and courage” and a “great” president.

Political figures

There appear to be no noticeable differences between the way African-American politicians and black Americans at large took the news of Kennedy’s murder. At a public memorial in Los Angeles, city councilman Tom Bradley read a mayoral proclamation setting an official day of mourning. Also present at the memorial was California Assemblyman Merv Dymally, who averred that Kennedy was “morally committed” to the philosophy of equal opportunity for everyone. Kennedy “was my personal inspiration,” Dymally said, “I hero-worshipped him.” When asked weeks later about the assassination, Milwaukee councilwoman Vel Phillips, who knew Kennedy, responded that it was still not possible for her to talk about it. Nevertheless, she disclosed that it seemed to her that in Kennedy’s death the world had suffered its greatest loss since the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. In the United States Congress, Representative Robert C. Nix of Pennsylvania maintained that Kennedy was an individual “of heroic stature” destined “for high service to humanity.” His eloquent remarks included the following passage: “Only, it seems, in periods of a hundred years is the mold out of which mankind is fashioned, modified by God and a greater portion of the infinite injected into the soul of a finite being, so it was with John Fitzgerald Kennedy.” Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. of New York introduced a resolution calling for the printing of a new postage stamp honoring the slain president.

The martyr theme

A somewhat commonly expressed view among African-Americans was that, as the editors of Jet magazine subtly suggested, Kennedy’s murder had something to do with his efforts to expand civil rights. Councilwoman Phillips had implied the same thing. Because the late President was committed to the idea of equality, she thought, like Lincoln he had been made to give “the last full measure of devotion to the cause of freedom.” Journalist Simeon Booker made the exact same point about Kennedy and Lincoln. William A. Fowlkes, managing editor of the Atlanta Daily World, reminded readers that he had recently written “that America would be in a pitiful state indeed, if at this time—the centennial year of the Emancipation Proclamation—extreme forces caused a stoppage in progress for full recognition and protection of human dignity.” Kennedy’s “unfettered stand for total civil rights” for all citizens “was a constant threat to the demagogues and to the racists who lived to ‘see things return to normalcy.’” The St. Louis American took it for granted that Kennedy was “the target of not a small party of men who viciously hated him for advocating the freedom of fellow human beings.” Los Angeles resident H. Claude Hudson, who saw Kennedy’s assassination as “an irreparable loss to our nation and the world,” commented that the fallen president was “a martyr to the cause of brotherhood and human dignity.” Guido Van Rijn notes that reverend C. L. Franklin, Aretha Franklin’s father, opined that “the ‘sniper did not pull the trigger alone’;” segregationist governors George Wallace (Alabama) and Ross Barnett (Mississippi) “’and all the forces of hate and evil’ were ‘as surely in Dallas with the sniper as they were in Jackson when Medgar Evers was felled.’” Al Duckett of the Chicago Defender likened Kennedy’s assassination to the crucifixion of Jesus.  Kennedy’s killers, he wrote, “had cried out: ‘We have a law and by our law he ought to die because he has hailed mankind as the children of God and therefore as brothers.’” The Los Angeles Sentinel editorialized that the “great and good” Kennedy was a man “towering in principle” and zealously committed to “the cause of human dignity, equality of opportunity for all Americans,” and brotherhood and justice for all of the world’s people. Consequently, this “courageous” man had “followed the footsteps of Medgar Evers into Eternity as a martyr to the hallowed cause of freedom.” A Philip Randolph spoke of the incomplete “business of American Democracy for which two Presidents have died.” Baseball legend Jackie Robinson, who had voted for Richard Nixon in 1960, wrote that in recent months he had come to see Kennedy as a “noble man” whom he now admired profoundly for his “courage.” And those qualities got Kennedy killed.  He had “done more for the civil rights cause than any” previous chief executive, Robinson thought, and he was assassinated “simply because he was a man of courageous conviction.” According to the Jackson [Mississippi] Advocate, African-Americans in all parts of the country viewed Kennedy as “a martyr to their cause, with his assassination … coming directly as a result of his stand for racial equality and civil rights.” AFRO magazine editorialized thusly: “We have lost the youngest President, the finest friend of the poor, the humble, and the disadvantaged this generation has known.” JFK was “a martyr in the cause of human rights—civil, political and social equality of colored people. His fate was the same as the other great President, advocate of freedom and emancipator, Abraham Lincoln.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

King’s reaction to Kennedy’s assassination differed from mainstream African-American opinion in two notable respects. First, Kennedy’s murder heightened his sense of his own physical vulnerability. At home watching coverage of the assassination as the initial news reports were televised, King said “I don’t think I’m going to live to reach forty.”  Such thinking must have in part sprung from, and been reinforced by, King’s close identification with Kennedy. Taylor Branch notes that King studied the president’s public speaking techniques, that he had adopted the code name “JFK” while in Birmingham, and that he “consistently tried to understand the political pressures” to which Kennedy was subject. What is more, according to Branch

King long since had braced himself for the martyr’s fate …and friends still  weighed his risks by direct comparison [to Kennedy].  “If they hated him, you  know they love you less,” warned his mentor, Benjamin Mays .… King  associated with Kennedy so strongly, in fact, that he was wounded when the  Kennedy family had not invited him to the funeral mass.  On his own  initiative, King had stood unattended and unnoticed among the sidewalk  crowds that watched the cortege pass by.

Second, King’s thought had a wide social focus that was not evident in most of the black commentary on Kennedy’s murder. This can be seen in the way King explained two different situations. One is the aforementioned foreboding King sensed concerning his own long-term survival. When his wife Coretta protested King’s personal prophecy of doom, he replied “This is what is going to happen to me also. I keep telling you, this is a sick nation.  And I don’t think I can survive either.” The other situation relates to how to assign responsibility for the killing of John Kennedy. As we have seen, the culprits were vaguely identified as “extreme forces,” racists, segregationists, demagogues, and the “forces of hate and evil.” But King’s view of culpability for the assassination suggests an organic and holistic perspective on the nature of society that was unorthodox but that enabled him to see a wider and more realistic picture than that of most of his fellows, black and white, of the dynamics involved in American racial apartheid and white resistance and moderation.  King rightly saw that hate did not exist in disconnected social boxes. The shots that rang out in Dallas’s Dealy Plaza on 22 November, he wrote

killed not only a man but a complex of illusions.  It demolished the myth that  hate and violence can be confined in an airtight chamber to be employed   against but a few.  Suddenly the truth was revealed that hate is a contagion;  that it grows and spreads as a disease; that no society is so healthy that it can automatically maintain its immunity.  If a smallpox epidemic had been raging  in the South, President Kennedy would have been urged to avoid the area.  There was a plague afflicting the South, but its perils were not perceived.

King strongly implied that Kennedy’s murder was politically motivated, but if he believed it was prompted by Kennedy’s efforts on behalf of the civil rights movement he did not express that view explicitly. What he chose to emphasize and to talk about was the fact that a society that tolerated segregation, violent oppression, and political killings was by logical extension a profoundly sick one. All Americans, in his view, were implicated in the Kennedy assassination:

We tolerated hate; we tolerated the sick stimulation of violence in all walks of life; and we tolerated the differential application of law, which said that a  man’s life was sacred only if we agreed with his views.  This may explain the  cascading grief that flooded the country in late November.  We mourned a  man who had become the pride of the nation, but we grieved as well for  ourselves because we knew we were sick.

One could object here that, rather than a social pathology, it is more likely that racial injustice and violent oppression were the result of ignorance and the willful meanness and cold-heartedness of many people in the white majority. And an argument could be made that by resorting to talk of social sickness King undermined his own frequent messages concerning the importance of morality. Still, King correctly understood that America’s race crisis was a reflection of problems that were endemic to society as a whole.

The iconoclast

Where the reaction of African-Americans to the Kennedy assassination is concerned, Malcolm X is a whole other story. Kennedy’s death did not deter Malcolm, who had long been in the habit of referring to Kennedy as a “white devil,” from reiterating his belief that during his presidency Kennedy’s relationship to black Americans was basically that of “’prison warden.’” Violating an edict from Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad that proscribed public comments on the Kennedy assassination, Malcolm characterized the killing as an example of “’the chickens coming home to roost.’” Quickly pouring gasoline on his newly lit fire, Malcolm remarked that having been a farm boy in his youth “’chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad, they’ve always made me glad.’”

Muhammad inflected a punishment on Malcolm in the form of a discipline of public silence, to which Malcolm submitted.  Muhammad publicized the punishment, which he used as an opportunity to release a statement saying that the nation still grieved over Kennedy’s death. According to Taylor Branch, a cover of Muhammad Speaks displayed a photograph memorializing the late President. When asked by reporters whether these actions represented a change in the Nation’s stance on the merits of white people, Muhammad replied that Kennedy, in Branch’s words, “deserved respect as head of a sovereign nation.” (James Baldwin may also qualify as an iconoclast here. On one hand, he seemed to imply that Kennedy’s assassination was connected to his pro civil rights work, or, that moderates would see it that way. On the other hand, Baldwin’s remarks to Jet magazine say nothing at all to the effect that Kennedy’s death was tragic or that Kennedy was a praiseworthy figure. In his comments to Jet, he is wholly concerned with how Kennedy’s death would affect the African-American. See “Negroes in All Walks of Life,” Jet, 12 Dec. 1963. This matter requires more research.)

There is one similarity in King’s and Malcolm’s reactions to the Kennedy assassination. Each man saw the president’s murder as being of a piece with a larger culture of violence. Malcolm vaguely implied that the assassination constituted a kind of blowback for violent actions the United States had undertaken or supported against brown and black people overseas. After making clear if veiled references to the Birmingham church bombing and the murder of Medgar Evers, King pointed to the similar “ambush” tactic used in the killings of both Evers and Kennedy and urged recognition of “the fact that we are dealing with a social disease” that it would be dangerous to ignore.

Towards an explanation of the high regard for JFK  among African-Americans

Kennedy’s achievements in the civil rights arena were quite modest, particularly during his first two years in office. This view apparently is not a point of contention among scholars. That said, how do we account for Kennedy’s enormous popularity among African-Americans? When viewed in the context of a society drenched in Marxian-defined false consciousness, two factors seem like plausible partial explanations.

One explanation has to do with Kennedy’s major civil rights speech of 11 June 1963.  In this sometimes eloquent address Kennedy discussed the racial crisis and outlined the reasons why new legislation expanding the rights of African-Americans was necessary. Nick Bryant, generally critical of Kennedy’s handling of civil rights problems, called the speech, which was highly praised by black civil rights leaders, “the most courageous of Kennedy’s presidency.” Bryant writes:

After two years of equivocation … Kennedy had finally sought to mobilize  that vast body of Americans, who had long considered segregation immoral,  and who were certainly unprepared to countenance the most extreme forms  of discrimination. By speaking to the issues in such a forceful manner— something he had never attempted before—he tried, however belatedly, to  mold public opinion and to mobilize the pro-civil rights majority behind his  bill.

That the speech was televised during prime time probably did much to boost Kennedy’s image as a sincere civil rights proponent among African-Americans. Bryant notes that during the late 1950s television became a powerful shaper of attitudes about the civil rights struggle, as images of anti-black violence and cruelty in the South led to greater awareness and sensitivity among many people. It stands to reason that in 1963 a strong presidential condemnation of injustice and discrimination and appeal to conscience would seem sincere to many people because it looked so real on television.

The other explanation has to do with how the rate of progress was perceived. Kennedy’s achievements were modest related to the range and quantity of reforms and legal remedies that were needed. However, improvements were made, and it may be that,  to many African-Americans, they seemed more than a little significant measured against the positive changes that occurred during the Eisenhower years.

A few examples of Kennedy-era changes and interventions, and what African-Americans said about them during the weeks after the assassination, will prove instructive.  Kennedy “grew in stature,” according to an Ebony editorial, when he took action that allowed James Meredith, James Hood, Vivian Malone and other young people to enter universities in southern states. Benjamin Mays and F.D. Patterson praised Kennedy for his efforts on behalf of the United Negro College Fund. Three African-Americans were appointed to ambassadorships. When 1200 African-American guests attended the Lincoln Birthday Emancipation reception at the White House, their number exceeded the total number of all African-American guests received at the White House in American history.  Jet reported that at his last press conference Kennedy had “confessed serious concern” about the need to expand job opportunities for African-Americans. His Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, according to the magazine, had pried open doors in the private sector that had been closed to African-Americans “for decades.” Although blocked in Congress, Kennedy had attempted to create an Urban Affairs Department to be headed by Robert C. Weaver, who would have been the first African-American ever to hold a Cabinet position. In 1961, Kennedy ordered the desegregation of the Coast Guard. The following year Samuel Gravely, a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy, became the first African-American to be given command of a warship (the radar picket escort ship USS Falgout). Hamilton Bims, Jet associate editor and Peace Corps veteran, proposed changing the Peace Corp’s name to the “Kennedy Peace Corps” to honor the late president for making the organization racially inclusive. In the spring of 1961, Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent hundreds of United States Marshals to Montgomery, Alabama to protect African-Americans from mob violence. Simeon Booker pointed out that at the time of the assassination Kennedy’s inner circle included Andrew T. Hatcher, Associate White House Press Secretary, and Louis Martin, Deputy Chairman of the Democratic National Committee.  And when Kennedy was buried, the world saw African-American service-members among the pall bearers, within the honor guard, and in the elite ceremonial guard.

In early 1964, Ebony magazine published a long article by Simeon Booker titled “How JFK surpassed Abraham Lincoln.” Concerning Kennedy, Booker posed the question: “What is his legacy for Negroes?”  Booker’s long answer can be summed up here in five statements:

1) By integrating the White House, “More than any other President …Kennedy helped Negroes bolster their identity.”

2) By attempting to eliminate voting obstacles in the South, “he dramatized to Negroes  that the privilege of voting” is a crucial right of citizenship.

3) As the first Catholic president, Kennedy “inspired Negroes as an example of a man  who crashed a prejudice barrier.”

4) In addition to working to advance civil rights, Kennedy “focused his attention on other  areas for Negro achievement—education and employment.”

5) “Perhaps the most important legacy of President Kennedy is that he stimulated  Negroes to stand up and fight for first-class citizenship.  Not once did he criticize  a demonstration or even a freedom ride although some administration officials  described such projects as ‘unwise.’”

Elsewhere, Booker told the dead president that he had “brought faith and hope to thousands of my people.” Concluding his Ebony piece, Booker wrote that “Negroes will miss him in tomorrow’s struggle.”

Thus does a president who was mostly indifferent to the tragic plight of an oppressed people come to be seen by most of them, to some extent understandably, as a heroic ally.

David Hoelscher has taught philosophy and history at various colleges. His articles have appeared in Counterpunch,The Human Prospect, The Progressive Populist, and other places. His essay “Religion, Atheism, and Class: A Personal Reflection,” will appear in the forthcoming book Atheists in America (Columbia University Press). He can be reached at



David Hoelscher has taught philosophy and history at various colleges in the U.S. and Sri Lanka. His essay “A Life of Class Consciousness” appears in the book Atheists in America (Columbia University Press, 2014). He can be reached