For years, many African-American homes in the South — and a good number in the North — had a common practice of adorning their living rooms with framed portraits of three historical figures: Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy.
Given the depth of the African-American faith experience, Jesus’ portrait is hardly a surprise. Neither, for that matter, is the presence of photos of Martin Luther King, the heroic figure in 20th century African-American history. But John F. Kennedy? What’s that about?
Understanding that phenomenon requires understanding the mindset of the world of the early 1960s. It was the era where an incumbent governor of Alabama stood in the door at the University of Alabama to prevent the registration of two African-American students. It was the era when segregation was in full bloom, when it was virtually unthinkable for Black families to live in neighborhoods inhabited by white residents, particularly in the South.
It was an era when the police chief of Alabama’s largest city dealt with civil rights demonstrators by unleashing attack dogs and the water pressure from fire hoses on African-American citizens.
It was against that backdrop that Kennedy made a speech dealing with the issue of civil rights, speaking to the American people in a televised speech in June of 1963.
"We are confronted primarily with a moral issue.... It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution,” Kennedy said. “One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice... this nation... will not be fully free until all its citizens are free. Now the time has come for this nation to fulfill its promise."
To frame the necessity for civil rights for African-Americans as a moral issue was daring talk in the world of 1963, a perspective Black Americans had never heard from an American president. It formed an immediate alliance between Kennedy and civil rights leaders. And Kennedy proposed civil rights legislation that was, for its time, far reaching.
After the speech, King called Kennedy’s civil rights proposals, “the most sweeping and forthright ever presented by an American president.”
Many historians — and politicians — now look at Kennedy’s civil rights proposals as providing less than full equality for Black Americans and they point out that it was his successor, the wheeler-dealer Lyndon B. Johnson, who really accomplished the most sweeping achievements in passing civil rights legislation. They also point out that Kennedy was, more than anything, a pragmatic politician who was not willing to go too far out on civil rights, fearing that he might jeopardize his re-election plans for 1964.
All of that is true. But they fail to capture the symbolism of Kennedy’s discourse on civil rights and why it resonated so powerfully and deeply among Black Americans of that day. Kennedy, as measured a politician as he was, nonetheless took the step of staking a position on the topic of such concern to Black people. In the process, he attracted the sharp rebuke of many white Southerners.
None of this was lost on Black Americans of that era. After all, not even the beloved Franklin D. Roosevelt uttered anything remotely like Kennedy’s words regarding the rights of African-Americans. It was why so many African-Americans wept openly on that fateful afternoon of November 22, 1963. And it is why Kennedy continues to evoke such strong emotion in so many.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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(Photo: National Archive/Newsmakers via Getty Images)