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John F. Kennedy: Black America’s Great White Hope

Lee A. Daniels | 11/11/2013, 9:45 a.m. | Updated on 11/11/2013, 9:45 a.m.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His most recent book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America. He collaborated with Rachel Robinson on her 1998 book, Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait. NNPA

Those two incidents underscore several larger points about the relationship between Kennedy and Black America in the early 1960s.

One was that they liked him. But they also used his rhetoric about freedom as well as early waffling on civil rights to intensify their determination to get the rights the political system owed them.

They understood that Kennedy’s initial personal and political dislike of civil rights activism accurately reflected that of the overwhelming majority of Whites outside the South, too. It was the movement’s task to compel them to recognize what was at stake, and to right the wrongs. The words of that movement anthem – ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘round … gonna keep on a-walking, keep on a-talking, marching down to freedomland! – were meant not only for the Southern segregationists but for Kennedy and other White “bystanders,” too.

And finally, there was one more thing that cemented the place of Kennedy in the pantheon of African American heroes: his murder at the very moment he had fully committed his administration to the Black freedom struggle. Horrific violence and a sense of tragedy had not only always shadowed Blacks’ quest for civil rights in America; it had shadowed their everyday existence. Now, that evil force had struck down the personification of American power, the 35th president of the United States – and Black America’s Great White Hope.

The irony is that in the sorrowful days of late November 1963, almost no one expected that JFK’s successor – the Texan, Lyndon Baines Johnson – would, for Black Americans, become an even greater benefactor.

Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.