In 1963, ‘‘the FBI assigned full enemy status to King,’’ Branch wrote, noting that even ‘‘after receiving intelligence that someone was trying to kill him, the Bureau would refuse to warn King as it routinely warned other potential targets.’’
Yet Kennedy still worked with King, even as his FBI tried to tear King down.
In June 1963, King had a private meeting with Kennedy at the White House. During a stroll through the Rose Garden, the president told King that he was under surveillance.
‘‘He was playing both sides of the issue,’’ Barrett says.
A few minutes after Kennedy’s warning, he and King joined a meeting with other civil rights leaders. The March on Washington had been announced, and Kennedy had hinted publicly that he was against it. Someone in the meeting asked if that was true.
‘‘We want success in the Congress, not a big show on the Capitol,’’ Kennedy replied, according to ‘‘Parting the Waters.’’
In the end, the peaceful mass march made headlines around the world.
Kennedy watched it on television. Immediately afterward, he met with march leaders in the White House, where they discussed civil rights legislation that was finally inching through Congress. The leaders pressed Kennedy to strengthen the legislation; the president listed many obstacles.
Some believe Kennedy preferred to wait until after the 1964 election to push the issue. Yet in his public speeches, he spoke more and more about justice for all.
La Trice Washington, a professor at Otterbein College in Ohio, says some of Kennedy’s rhetoric went ‘‘well beyond sympathetic.’’ As an example, she cites a graduation speech at San Diego State College on June 11, 1963.
‘‘Our goal must be an educational system in the spirit of the declaration of independence — a system in which all are created equal,’’ Kennedy said. ‘‘A system in which every child, whether born a banker’s son in a Long Island mansion, or a Negro sharecropper’s son in an Alabama cotton field, has every opportunity for an education that his abilities and character deserve.’’
Those were dangerous words, Washington says.
‘‘That was not acceptable language by the dominant culture,’’ she says. ‘‘That puts you on the front lines. It puts you on the line not only for political retribution, but for death.’’
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 Black History Month, his name has been 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.’’
Jesse Washington covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press. He is reachable at www.twitter.com/jessewashington or jwashington(at)ap.org.