“I am the least racist person you’ve ever met.”
—Donald Trump, October 18, 2016
“Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad!”
—Donald Trump, January 14, 2017
On the list of presidents who have disrespected John Lewis, Trump comes second. There’s no record of his having referred to Lewis as a “son of a bitch” after letting rednecks beat him over the head with a wooden crate, so John F. Kennedy has to come first.
Kennedy didn’t have hate (only mild condescension) in his heart, but he also didn’t have an inkling in his head about what the black freedom struggle meant. Some examples: On the hundredth anniversary of the drafting of the Emancipation Proclamation, he skipped the festivities and watched the yacht races in Newport instead. When African ambassadors complained that they couldn’t eat in many restaurants on the highway between New York and Washington, DC, he wondered why they didn’t just fly. In 1963, after police dogs tore the clothes from child protesters in Birmingham, he allowed that “if [he] were a Negro, [he’d] be awfully sore,” too. President Kennedy’s New Frontier, beautifully evoked by his rhetoric and his style, was narrower in his own mind than in the actions of many people listening.
Anything we got out of Kennedy came out of the objective situation and the political necessity, and not out of the spirit of John Kennedy. He was a reactor.' civil rights strategist Bayard Rustin
Finally, more than two years into his presidency, in the wake of the appalling Birmingham campaign featuring the aforementioned police dogs (and fire hoses), JFK stated clearly that guaranteeing the rights of black citizens was a moral requirement, not simply a mechanistic issue of enforcing the law. He was killed before we learned what he would do with this late-breaking insight. We can wonder what he might have been. Unfortunately, we know what he was: an inspiring leader who never quite overcame his callowness about the most important cause of his times.
On May 4, 1961, 13 people—seven black, six white, one the 21-year-old John Lewis—boarded two buses in Washington, DC, bound for New Orleans. The Supreme Court had ruled segregated interstate travel unconstitutional twice, but that didn’t stop southern bus stations from maintaining four bathrooms and two waiting rooms. The Freedom Riders intended to behave as if the law of the land were observed—to sit together in integrated pairs at the front of the bus and use the white facilities in stations as they rode deeper and deeper into the South. The first Freedom Rider to get arrested was trying to get his shoes shined at a whites-only stand.
President Kennedy, still reeling from the Bay of Pigs disaster and planning a summit with Khrushchev, learned about the rides on Mother’s Day, when mobs in Alabama firebombed one bus (in Anniston) and beat the passengers of the other (in Birmingham). Kennedy was furious, as you might expect. The twist: he was mostly furious at the Freedom Riders for giving him another headache. “Get your goddamned friends off those buses,” he told his civil rights advisor. “Tell them to call it off!”
Two impulses collided to cause Kennedy’s reaction.
First, he was totally cowed by the southern Democrats in Congress. He believed, not unreasonably, that he’d never get any bills through if he offended them. In a one-party political environment, southern politicians stayed in office once they got there. They gobbled up seniority like pork rinds, and as committee chairmen they could strangle legislation in the cradle. Indeed, despite his solicitousness toward racist demagogues, Kennedy didn’t get much of his domestic agenda passed. He didn’t have the stomach for legislative close work. He preferred to promote civil rights quietly by executive order.
Second, he was impressed by his own belief in equality and resented black activists who didn’t seem satisfied by the fact that he didn’t think them inferior. After Harry Belafonte gently suggested that he “say something a little more about the Freedom Riders,” he fumed, “Doesn’t he know that I’ve done more for civil rights than any president in American history? How could any man have done more than I’ve done?” Later, he griped about the lack of credit Martin Luther King gave him for the “whole variety of very effective steps to improve the equal opportunities” he’d taken. To Kennedy, demands smacked of ingratitude.
After the violence in Anniston and Birmingham, most of the original riders decided to end their journey. Thinking his brother’s problems were over, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy sent an aide, John Seigenthaler, “just to hold their hand and let them know that we care.” After student activists from Nashville announced they intended to finish the ride, though, Siegenthaler had a real job to do: convince the organizers to change their minds. When they told him they’d written their wills, he understood they were in earnest, so he turned to negotiating with John Patterson, Alabama’s segregationist governor, to protect the riders. As far as the Kennedy Administration was concerned, this was always the order of operations. First, “Black people, don’t do something legal and rational.” Second, “White people, please don’t beat the shit out of them with axe handles, baseball bats, and chains.”
Kennedy, who spent his life concealing his Addison’s disease, crippling back pain, and extramarital affairs, should have known that Patterson was lying when he acceded to the demand that no more harm come to the Freedom Riders. (The more famous racist Alabama Governor George Wallace lost to Patterson in 1958, after which defeat he said, “I was out-niggered by John Patterson. I’ll never be out-niggered again.” And so he wasn’t.) But just as Kennedy didn’t have a feel for black citizens’ aspirations, he didn’t appreciate white southerners’ massive resistance to them. In 1962, during Martin Luther King’s Albany Campaign, he said, “I find it wholly inexplicable why the City Council of Albany will not sit down with the citizens of Albany, who may be Negroes, and attempt to secure them, in a peaceful way, their rights.” This wasn’t rhetoric. He was genuinely befuddled.
In the case of the Freedom Rides, Patterson never once negotiated in good faith. To avoid talking to the president in the first place, Patterson concocted the story that he was fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. (South Carolina’s Governor and now Congressman Mark Sanford adapted this tactic in 2009 when he claimed from his mistress’s bed in Buenos Aires to be “hiking the Appalachian Trail.”) At one point, Patterson ghosted Bobby Kennedy like a Tinder date, simply refusing to pick up his phone as it rang and rang.
Eventually, Patterson convinced Kennedy he’d provide protection this time around, and the second wave of Freedom Riders left Birmingham under armed guard. When they arrived in Montgomery, though, the state troopers peeled off and were replaced by a mob of Klansmen. That’s when John Lewis was bashed over the head. His friend Jim Zwerg’s teeth were stomped out. One man held William Barbee down while another jammed a jagged metal rod into his ear. Seigenthaler, the Kennedy aide who came along “just to hold their hand,” was knocked out with a lead pipe and shoved underneath a car.
Finally, Kennedy acted. He sent in U.S. marshals. Unfortunately, “the marshals” amounted to a handful of professional law enforcement officers and a bunch of deputized postal workers and prison guards who, according to one observer, were “middle-aged, fat, lethargic people…who came from the South and really thought they were being asked to protect black people whom they considered Communists, or worse.” Still, the riders got out of Alabama alive.
They still had to get through Mississippi—which is like saying I’m almost done with my homework except for solving Fermat’s theorem. Learning from the Alabama debacle, the Kennedys reached a cagier compromise. As long as Mississippi’s governor didn’t let the riders get savaged, he would be free to arrest them for refusing to use the colored facilities. John Lewis was arrested at the white urinal.
It’s important to remember that segregated bus stations were plainly unconstitutional. Kennedy was encouraging Mississippians who were breaking the law to arrest people for trying to obey it. In the meantime, Bobby Kennedy said, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) would look into the possibility of issuing regulations to integrate interstate travel per the Supreme Court’s rulings.
The arrested Freedom Riders were sent to Parchman Farm, a prison so hideous that both William Faulkner and the blues singer Bukka White wrote about it. Still not getting it, Bobby Kennedy asked the civil rights community to stand down while they waited for the ICC. Instead, riders poured into Mississippi for the express purpose of getting arrested, filling up the jails, and keeping the pressure on. After a long hot summer, the ICC ruled that it would no longer issue licenses to companies using segregated facilities, and the white and colored signs came down.
Kennedy continued to botch opportunities to advance civil rights, and when Martin Luther King wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in 1963, he included Kennedy in his slashing critique of “the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Kennedy may have been starting to hear him. He finally sent civil rights legislation to Congress (it didn’t pass but a variation became the Civil Rights Act of 1964).
In the same letter, King wrote that “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” Given that “absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will” would make a good epitaph for the first month of the Trump Presidency, we may be facing a test of King’s underlying premise over the next four years. Is the moderate really worse than the bigot? However it turns out, I suspect that John Lewis wishes he could have JFK back.
I highly recommend Freedom Riders by Raymond Arsenault. This format precludes a nuanced telling of the story with all its twists and turns, but Arsenault’s book is a fascinating and revealing case study. I also love “The American Experience” documentary (which I embedded above). John Lewis’s Walking With the Wind also includes an extended account of the rides, and in general it’s much better than your garden variety movement memoir. On Kennedy, Robert Dallek’s An Unfinished Life is the go-to source, and as far as presidential biographies go, it’s restrained at a hair over 700 pages. For something quicker, Alan Brinkley wrote the Kennedy entry in the American President’s series. In 2014, Todd Purdum and Clay Risen both wrote books to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, including an up-to-date analysis of Kennedy on civil rights. I read the Purdum and not the Risen only because one happened to be available at my local library and the other didn’t, but both are well-regarded. “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” is available for free on the Internet and is worth a few minutes of your time.