JFK holds complex place in Black history

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In this Jan. 14, 1963 file photo, President John F. Kennedy speaks in the House Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington during his State of the Union report to a joint session of Congress with Vice President Lyndon Johnson sitting behind him. (AP Photo/File)

Fifty years later, except for the aging few who recall the portraits on the walls, Kennedy is not widely remembered as a civil rights icon. During this past February’s Black History Month, his name was seldom mentioned.

His successor, President Lyndon Johnson, receives credit for hammering through the monumental Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, which ensured full citizenship for African-Americans.

“Kennedy was sort of remade after his death,” says Allan Saxe, a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington who has researched Kennedy and civil rights. “He did speak on civil rights, he talked about it, but he never got much legislation through.”

Barrett, the Villanova professor, says Kennedy was moving, however slowly, toward a “full steam ahead” approach to civil rights — and then he was killed.

“I don’t think he ever developed an emotional or gut level commitment on this issue. He’s memorialized that way, but I don’t think he got there,” Barrett says.

Today, the hard facts of history can be unforgiving. But for Black people who lived that history, a cautious hand extended can feel like an embrace.

“When I think about his compassion for people, I also think about Martin Luther King,” says Jordan, the Richmond pastor.  She believes Kennedy is a martyr for Black people, “because a martyr is someone who died for what they believed.”

Mack, the civil rights activist, admires him still.

Whether Kennedy might have achieved anything substantial on civil rights — “that’s the unknown,” he acknowledges.

Still, he adds, “Being as young as I was, I saw him as a breath of fresh air. Youthful, dynamic, a new visionary type of leader. I felt a lot of optimism and hope. I felt that in time, if we kept up our advocacy, he would deal with issues important to our people.”

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Jesse Washington covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press. He is reachable at http://www.twitter.com/jessewashington or jwashington@ap.org.

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