Legacy: John F. Kennedy -- His Real Civil Rights Record

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[Legacy And Remembrance]

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, felled by assassin Lee Harvey Oswald's bullets 50 years ago today, was the 35th President of the Unites States.

He was born on May 29, 1917 in Brookline, Massachusetts. Kennedy was born into wealth on both sides of his family. His mother, Rose Fitzgerald, was the daughter of John Fitzgerald, a politician who served as a congressman and the mayor of the city of Boston. His father, Joseph Kennedy Sr., was a banker who made a fortune as a banker, Wall Street speculator, real estate mogul, and bootlegger.

As senator of Massachusetts in 1957, Kennedy voted against President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Civil Rights Act. Southerners saw Kennedy as a moderate because he wasn’t strong on civil rights issues. He issued executive orders that created job opportunities, access to public housing and expanded voting rights for Blacks; he always stayed away from making a sweeping civil rights bill.

Kennedy narrowly won the 1960 election, and while he courted the Black vote in the election, he also knew that if he wanted to be re-elected he needed to appease White southern voters in order to win their vote. He refused to send in federal troops into the southern states to enforce desegregation.  Kennedy, while against segregation, was hesitant to take strong federal actions on the issue of civil rights due to fear of a southern voter backlash in his quest for re-election. 

During his presidential campaign, he made it clear that he was a supporter of civil rights. While campaigning, Kennedy promised to eliminate housing discrimination through executive order, but never followed through until two years into his presidency.  Blacks certainly helped Kennedy get elected.  He won the 1960 election by the slimmest of margins in presidential history.

Kennedy dominated the Black vote, winning 70% to Nixon's 30%. Kennedy was able to win the large majority of Black votes because he called Coretta Scott King in a show of support when her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King was arrested in Georgia. Then his brother, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, called the Georgia judge who sentenced King and asked for his release.  King was released the next day.

Blacks showed their appreciation at the polls by throwing their support behind Kennedy.  Yet when he became president, he spent his first two years in office unfocused on the issue of civil rights.  To Kennedy, foreign affairs dominated his presidency and civil rights was a secondary issue. 

He had a relatively weak civil rights record and he failed to deliver a civil rights bill.  He never gave his full support to the Civil Rights Movement.  Much of the actions he took were due to pressure, not because of his moral belief system.  In 1961 when Freedom Riders traveled by buses into the south to lend their support to try to break segregation, they met violent resistance from white racists.

Kennedy sent U.S. Marshalls in to protect the Freedom Riders because he was afraid of the negative press that violence would generate.  In 1963, with the world watching via television coverage, violence broke out in Alabama as Bull Connor and the Birmingham police attacked non-violent protesters led by Dr. King.  The embarrassment of the situation forced Kennedy to take action.  It was at this point when Kennedy called for major civil rights legislation. 

Through the Cointelpro (Counterintelligence Program) program, the FBI had Dr. King and all of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement under surveillance.  Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, were aware of the surveillance and supported it.   It was with Kennedy’s approval that Bobby Kennedy authorized the wiretapping of King by the FBI.  FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was convinced that King was a communist and wanted as much information as he could gather on King.  This led to wiretaps on King’s home, office and even hotel rooms. 

Kennedy’s image has posthumously been glorified within the African-American community, but during his life he accomplished very little to help Black people.  In fairness to Kennedy, he did not have the opportunity to complete a full term in office.  Many of the civil rights issues that needed to be addressed fell through the cracks.  He had major international issues to tackle in the short time he was in office, and unfortunately, Black civil rights was put on the back burner. 

All things considered, Kennedy gets too much credit in the African American community for being a symbol of Black hope.

It was common in African American households in the 1960’s and 1970’s to see a picture of Jesus in between pictures of Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

As a community, African Americans elevated Kennedy to a status that he never actually achieved during his presidency. 

Part of this article is an excerpt from the e-books Funny Money vol. I and II by Calvin R. Evans. Published by Saggigga Publishing on Amazon.com; August 2013; $2.99 US; Funny Money vol. I (ASIN: B00ESWAIZI), and Funny Money vol. II (ASIN: B00ESZ0008). Copyright © 2013 Calvin R. Evans

 

 

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