JFK, martyred liberal icon, turns out to have been wholly indifferent to the question of civil rights for black Americans.
Kennedy, who built a political career on the sinking of PT-109, once told a fellow survivor, “My story about the collision is getting better all the time. Now I’ve got a Jew and a nigger in the story and with me being a Catholic, that’s great.” Kennedy may have had Jewish supporters and advisers, but even in the White House, writes historian/journalist Bryant, most of the blacks he encountered were domestic staff. Thus, his brother Bobby, called to press the point that the summer of ’63 was going to be long and hot, told him, “My friends all say the Negro maids and servants are getting antagonistic.” Kennedy was not so much bigoted—never mind the casual use of the “n” word—as he was opportunistic; he needed the Southern Democrats in order to advance his political ambitions, and while in Congress he played to them so much that throughout the ’50s he was praised in Deep South newspapers as an ally of segregation. The very suggestion seems anathema, but it certainly explains Kennedy’s actions in helping denature the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Shocking, too, is Kennedy’s alliance with white-supremacist politician John Patterson, which led the great baseball player and civil-rights activist Jackie Robinson to voice “his displeasure by refusing to have his photograph taken with Kennedy at a New York dinner.” Kennedy admired Martin Luther King Jr., but mostly for his rhetorical skills; King, in turn, thought Kennedy not a bad man but in need of much guidance. The Birmingham strike of 1963, with Sheriff Bull Connor’s setting attack dogs on black demonstrators, finally turned Kennedy. But before Connor did so, only four percent of Americans thought civil rights was the country’s most urgent issue, while 52 percent thought so afterward.
A necessary tarnishing of Camelot’s gleaming image.