The Kennedys and blacks

July 25, 1999|By Paul Delaney

WHATEVER it was, John F. Kennedy Jr., had it, just like his dad -- that certain "je ne sais quoi" that you can't put your finger on, but you know it when you feel it.

The same mysterious qualities that drew so many people, African-Americans in particular, to President Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy also rubbed off on John Jr.

While media coverage did not fully capture it, many African-Americans were deeply touched by the recent deaths of Mr. Kennedy, his wife, Carolyn, and her sister, Lauren, in a plane crash off Martha's Vineyard.

But like his father, Mr. Kennedy had no real civil rights record that would command strong support among blacks.

In fact, President Kennedy's record as a senator was negative. David Garrow, in his autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr., "Bearing the Cross," noted that King initially "had little enthusiasm for Kennedy," who voted against provisions of the 1957 Civil Rights Act to appease Southern segregationists in his quest for the White House.

At the beginning of his presidency, Kennedy tiptoed around civil rights as much as possible, trying hard to finesse the massive demonstrations and violent white reaction to them. He acted only after intense pressure from rights leaders and growing disgust by many Northern whites.

In addition, to the consternation of rights advocates and as a result of traditional senatorial courtesy, President Kennedy appointed some arch-racists to judgeships in the South, some of whom consistently upheld segregationist laws that were usually easily overturned on appeal.

However, he solidified black support during his presidential run in September 1960, when he called Coretta Scott King while her husband was jailed in Reidsville, Ga. King's father, an ardent Republican, then announced that he would vote for Kennedy.

President Kennedy made another famous call to her in April 1963, when violence against rights workers was increasing and King was jailed in Birmingham, Ala.

After that call, President Kennedy became more spirited in his support of the movement's goals.

As a result, he guaranteed himself a permanent place in the hearts of African-Americans. Even today, many blacks display pictures of John and Bobby Kennedy alongside King's in sort of a holy trio of slain leaders.

President Kennedy's speeches far overshadowed his legislative prowess on civil rights, but he certainly paved the way for President Lyndon B. Johnson, who did more for civil rights than any other president.

There was an unappreciated understanding that the president had to push civil rights slowly so as not to perturb the powerful Southern congressional committee chairmen, who could block important legislation and endanger the president's re-election bid.

The Kennedys sized up the race issue pretty quickly and chose the right side. There was absolutely nothing in their affluent background to indicate that they would take up the cause of the poor and minorities. The transformation of President Kennedy and Robert Kennedy apparently affected the entire family.

In the Senate today, Sen. Edward Kennedy's voice is almost alone in shouting to the top of the Capitol that the nation should not forget those left behind, especially in these boom times.

Yet, the seed had been planted in the family.

While he made no major public contributions to civil rights, John Kennedy Jr. worked quietly with several charity groups that have donated millions of dollars and helped thousands of people in New York City, including a school in Harlem, some of his close associates recently told the New York Times.

His magazine, George, was not a beacon of integration. But the young Kennedy showed a very human side. I don't know how much his visit to boxer Mike Tyson in a Maryland jail qualifies as a major humanitarian act, but he did reach out where a lot of us wouldn't.

Among blacks, there was a feeling about this young man, something appealing: his swagger, the bounce in his step, dress, style, attitude, twinkle in his eye.

And, I firmly believe that, eventually, John F. Kennedy Jr., would have run for public office. He would have had tremendous black support not only for his politics, but also because he has that certain . . . je ne sais quoi.

Paul Delaney is director of the Center for the Study of Race and Media at Howard University in Washington.

Pub Date: 7/25/99

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