Martyr, n. – In extended (esp. non-religious) contexts: a person who undergoes death or great suffering for a faith, belief, or cause, or (usu. with to; also with of, for) through devotion to some object.
— Oxford English Dictionary
He didn’t even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights. it had to be some silly little Communist.
— Jacqueline Kennedy, November 22, 1963
Did John F. Kennedy die for civil rights?
I believe that he did, but not in the way one might think.
Despite his death at the hands of the silly little communist, John F. Kennedy still was hailed as a hero, and even a martyr, of the 1960s civil rights movement. An important reason for that posthumous status is that movements need heroes and icons for focal points. Fantasy and myth are often enlisted to provide heroes, whether they actually existed or not. After JFK’s assassination, there was no shortage of myth-makers who had something to gain from promoting an iconic status for the murdered President. Of course, myths require some facts and real occurrences to anchor them. With Kennedy, there was little more than his expressions of sympathy for victims of racist violence, and his proposal and support of a sweeping civil rights bill that ultimately became law, all occurring within the year prior to his death. Timing is everything.
President Kennedy had been elected in 1960 by a thin popular plurality. During the campaign, Kennedy was seen as pro civil rights, but so was his opponent Richard Nixon. After all, Nixon was vice-president when President Eisenhower used troops to desegregate the University of Arkansas, and helped break filibusters of civil rights bills when presiding over the Senate. The political wisdom at the time was that most Americans, though in theory were in favor of equal legal and political rights for Negroes, as Black people were called at the time, they were not all that keen on bucking tradition as far as social mixing was concerned. Also, few white people outside the South felt strongly about civil rights. Many in that region did, and these were adamantly opposed to desegregation. Some were prepared to violently resist it. JFK was competent politician, and what he lacked in acumen, he had picked astute advisers to provide it. Choosing a vice-presidential candidate from Texas, Lyndon B. Johnson, undoubtedly provided the razor thin margin for the Democratic victory in that critical state. Johnson doubtless helped in other Southern states as well.
For the first two years of his Presidency, JFK stayed away from the civil rights issue. Holding together a Congressional majority that would enact his New Frontier programs, and re-election in 1964 were Kennedy’s foci. Until he was forced to, Kennedy steered clear of civil rights controversies.
That changed in 1963. The events of that year included the brutality of Birmingham’s police commissioner Bull Connor’s suppression of protesters, on national television no less. That summer saw the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi, George Wallace’s stand in the schoolhouse door, and the church bombing that killed four little girls in Birmingham transform the national consensus to favor doing something to protect the rights of Negroes. Then, the August 1963 march on Washington led by Martin Luther King demonstrated the political power of the movement. These events made it imperative that Kennedy stand up on the side of civil rights. So, the President proposed a sweeping civil rights law in a nationally televised speech.
Pushing the bill that became the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress, however, was no easy task. The President proposed it as the comprehensive measure it turned out to be, but he doubtless expected the act be significantly watered down or compromised. The strategy was to set an anchor point as high as constitutionally possible with plenty of room to negotiate, but still end up with a meaningful law. The bill met with immediate opposition from the southern Democrats who held a disproportionate amount of the power in Congress, particularly in the Senate. Not long after the bill was introduced, it stalled.
As of the time of Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, the civil rights bill was in limbo, and its future uncertain. The opposition among key Congressional Democrats, mostly from the Southern states, was firm. The bill was likely to be compromised to the extent that it would be no more significant than the two previous acts, in 1957 and 1960, that Senator John F. Kennedy had voted for, but had done little else to promote. Additionally, the President, though generally popular because of his firm Cold War stand, had a lot of opposition throughout the nation, and not just over civil rights.
Then, all of a sudden, he was gone. Lyndon B. Johnson was President.
Johnson had never been popular with the northeastern liberal wing of the Democratic Party. In fact, they barely tolerated him. Bobby Kennedy, JFK’s brother and attorney general, loathed LBJ. The feeling was mutual. There was quite a bit of speculation, now known to have a real basis, that Kennedy would dump Johnson from the ticket in 1964.
Even though he shepherded two weak civil right laws through the Senate, he was a Texan, a Southerner, and presumed to be opposed to any comprehensive civil rights law as was then languishing in Congress. When Johnson arrived at Andrews Air Force Base upon returned from Dallas with Kennedy’s body, he briefly addressed the nation on live television. At least one Negro, when hearing the new President’s Texas Southern accent, wondered out loud what was going to happen to them now.
Lyndon Johnson was misjudged. The new President had grown up politically under the tutelage of Sam Rayburn and John Nance Garner, allies of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Johnson believed in the New Deal and use of government power to reform society, both economically and to some extent socially. He had long dreamed about taking the Rooseveltian polices to into the next phase.
While most of LBJ’s policies turned out to be like the New Deal, misguided and disastrous, he was right when it came to civil rights. Johnson had for sometime held the view that the South was never going to take a significant place in the nation, economically or otherwise, so long as racial segregation existed and the systematic denial of basic civil rights to Black people continued there. He was indeed predisposed to push for an end to racial segregation, and now was given the means to do it.
There was just enough to John F. Kennedy’s civil rights posture in the last year of his life to make him a credible civil rights hero. Enough that, unbeknownst to Jacqueline Kennedy that day, and even to the assassin, the silly little communist provided Lyndon B. Johnson a martyr.
There was much more. Before accepting the vice-presidential nomination, Johnson had been the majority leader of the Senate, where he had in two terms as Senator, gained immense power. He knew which buttons to push, where the closet skeletons were, who was having an affair with who, and who paid. He could get things done in the Senate and even decisively influence key members in the House when no one else could. As vice-president, LBJ’s power was greatly diminished, but he kept his contacts and still knew whose favor to curry in Congress. He could have been of great help in pushing the civil rights bill had JFK lived, but Bobby Kennedy and other influential White House staffers who disliked Johnson were not going to let that happen.
By using all of his political acumen with Congress and playing the Kennedy icon for all it was worth, Lyndon Baines Johnson persuaded Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with not one comma changed, as he put it, and triumphantly signed it into law.
Lee Harvey Oswald slew John F. Kennedy for reasons of his own, and it is doubtful that Kennedy’s belated stance favoring civil rights was one of them. Marxists believed that the proletarian classes all over the world regardless of nationality or color, should unite against their oppressors. But Kennedy became a martyr in spite of his widow’s lament, and his death enabled his successor to pass laws he probably never could had he lived: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Right Act of 1965. Though some of their provisions may have outlived their usefulness, for their time, both were good and necessary measures, and truly advanced the cause of civil rights for our country.