By Reubin Turner
Assistant City Editor
He was the youngest elected president in the history of the United States.
Fate cared little, though, as it threw him the toughest issue any president had ever been confronted with — the possibility of nuclear war.
For some, it was his aversion of an imminent war with Russia that defined the administration of President John F. Kennedy and garnered him international respect.
But in the eyes of Dr. Joseph Brown, associate professor of political science, Kennedy’s legacy in the eyes of blacks across the nation was shaped unequivocally by his involvement in civil rights.
“Although Kennedy himself was not successful in getting the bill through Congress, he was the architect,” Brown said.
Kennedy was the first to go on record in support of passing legislation for civil rights on June 11, 1963, when in a national address he called civil rights a moral issue and urged the nation to “examine its conscience.”
It was during this speech that he introduced to Congress the Civil Rights Act, which would later go on to be passed during the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson.
Kennedy gave the speech the same day he sent the National Guard to ensure the peaceful integration of the University of Alabama, after Governor George Wallace and protestors attempted to block it.
Brown, who was 17 years old at the time of Kennedy’s assassination, reflected on the day Kennedy died, and said sadness and disappointment were the only things he remembers feeling on that day.
He attended Carver High in Lafayette, La., an all black, segregated school and recalls many were crying. He said almost everyone was in disbelief.
“During that time, we felt that the two major leaders of the movement were King and Kennedy,” Brown said. “When Kennedy was assassinated, it was as if half of our
hopes were taken out with him.”
Despite the overwhelming black support for Kennedy during his tenure as president, some such as Dr. James SoRelle, professor of history, contend that many black voters were initially cautious of Kennedy because of his Catholicism.
Martin Luther King Sr., senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta who often spoke about national issues from the pulpit, said he could not in good conscience vote for a Catholic. King Sr. was also a life-long republican and had endorsed Nixon.
“Many southern blacks were both Protestant and staunch Republicans before the 1960s, as it was the party of Lincoln,” SoRelle said. He also said many southern blacks abhorred the Democratic Party because they included many famous racists such as George Wallace and, for a time, Lyndon Johnson.
SoRelle said, however, that King Sr.’s views on Kennedy changed when he and his brother Robert Kennedy helped get King Jr. released from prison after he was arrested in an Atlanta sit-in protest.
Upon King Jr.’s release from prison, his father was quoted as saying “I didn’t like Kennedy because he’s a Catholic, but now that he’s got my boy out of jail, I’ve got a whole suitcase full of votes and I’m going to go to Washington and dump them in his lap.”
SoRelle said he believes this was the turning point for the Kennedy campaign in regards to black support, as King Sr.’s message began to spread outside of Atlanta.
“At this point, what appeared to be a platform in favor of civil rights, really appealed to the black voters, especially in the South,” SoRelle said.
And this couldn’t have come a moment too soon, as the election was less than two weeks away.
According to an article published by the New York Times the day after the election, Kennedy was able to win the election due to strong support of both northern and southern blacks.
Kennedy won the popular vote by less than 1 percent, and the months ahead would prove challenging as many leaders of the Civil Rights Movement regularly criticized the Kennedy administration for their reluctance to move quickly on civil rights legislation.
Despite this, Brown said he believes the attitudes of most black Americans toward Kennedy from that era center around one idea — “he was a pioneer in the movement, and for that we are eternally grateful.”