On this episode of Reality Asserts Itself with Paul Jay, Glen Ford discusses the JFK presidency and its relative indifference towards the black freedom struggle
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to Reality Asserts Itself.
We’re continuing our series of interviews evaluating the presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Friday, November 22, is the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Kennedy came to power in one of the most dangerous decades of the 20th century. Perhaps the world came closest to annihilating itself during his time in office.
Now joining us to talk about Kennedy is Glen Ford. Glen is the executive editor of Black Agenda Report. He was the founder and host of America’s Black Forum, the first nationally syndicated black news interview show on commercial television. He’s also the author of The Big Lie: An Analysis of U.S. Media Coverage of the Granada Invasion.
Thanks very much for joining us again, Glen.
GLEN FORD, EXEC. EDITOR, BLACK AGENDA REPORT: Thanks for the invitation, Paul.
JAY: So paint a picture in your view of the world as Kennedy campaigns and becomes president.
FORD: Well, you know, it’s generally understood that 1960 is the year that blacks, that the Democratic Party got a lock on the black vote. Many people seem to think that happened just by magic because of the Kennedy charm or because the Kennedys were such quintessential liberals–and of course they were not. But it’s much more complicated than that.
Although the black vote had been leaning Democratic in those places where blacks could vote since Roosevelt’s era, many blacks were still Republicans, and the Democratic Party was still weighted down with the Dixiecrats, the racist Democrats from the South. And in 1952 and 1956, when Adlai Stevenson was running for president as the Democrat, that didn’t change, and the national party did not distance itself from an increasingly vocal and racist and white power structure down there.
In 1957, with the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, something really extraordinary happened. Crowds of thousands of white folks, many of them women, tried to block the integration of the school. They screamed, they hollered, they threatened, they cursed, and all of that was done in front of national television cameras–a very, very embarrassing situation for the president of the United States, who was trying to project the U.S. in opposition to Soviet competition as being such a liberal place to live and the home of democracy and the land of the brave and such, and it was very embarrassing. So Eisenhower sent in troops to Little Rock in 1957.
And this had a tremendous impact on black public opinion, because this was the first time since Reconstruction that the federal government had intervened on the side of black people. Eisenhower’s stock went up in black America sky high. And so, as we move into the 1960 presidential election, there was great fear among the Democrats, who know it’s going to be a very tight race, that Richard Nixon, Eisenhower’s vice president, now heading the ticket, may inherit some of that tremendous goodwill that Eisenhower got because of his intervention in Little Rock in 1957. And so for the first time we have a real competition between the two political parties over the black vote. That had actually never occurred in the history of the United States. And that’s the stage that’s set in 1960.
This is the reason, the compelling reason that JFK and his brother, RFK, intervened directly right before the November 1960 election to volunteer whatever assistance they could to Dr. Martin Luther King, who was in prison in Reidsville, Georgia, and facing the possibility of significant time in jail. And that intervention is what tipped the scales of the black vote to Kennedy and away from Richard Nixon, who was thought to be the possible inheritor of Eisenhower’s goodwill in the community.
So that’s how that saga began between blacks and Kennedy.
JAY: Well, let’s keep pursuing that path before we talk about some of the other issues. You said early on in this interview that they were not the liberals that people took them for. Certainly this issue of their attitude towards the civil rights movement, they get a lot–they meaning JFK and RFK–get a lot of credit towards promoting and being sort of the beginning of support for the civil rights movement and the legislation that then came under Johnson, and they get–basically is they’re the beginning of the sort of modern version of Democratic Party liberalism. You don’t buy that.
FORD: No, I don’t buy that. And the literature actually shows that both Kennedy brothers saw the civil rights movement as a nuisance at best. Remember, the FBI’s spy campaign against Martin Luther King began under Robert Kennedy’s watch. He was aware of it. And as tight as those two brothers were–they talked about everything together–we can assume that John Kennedy was also aware that the FBI was not only spying on Martin Luther King but was trying to destroy his reputation, that the FBI had King in its sights.
JAY: The March on Washington Kennedy considered a kind of a victory for himself. The literature, at any rate, says that they considered it a good example of managed protest and that they negotiated with the leaders of the civil rights movement to keep the protest contained. What is that story?
FORD: And it was a high-profile management, so high a profile management that Malcolm X called it “the farce on Washington” and railed constantly against those Big Six leaders, as he called the civil rights pantheon of the time, allowing themselves to be manipulated by the white Democrat in the White House and allowing Kennedy to put “cream in the coffee”, as Malcolm used to put it.
JAY: Whatever one judges their intent or motivation, were there some positive accomplishments of the Kennedy administration in terms of either civil rights or social equality legislation?
FORD: Well, he did pass a modest (I believe it was by executive order) update of existing, very modest civil rights apparatus, but no, nothing substantial. He’s usually credited with creating the tone of cooperation, of non-hostility that would allow the civil rights forces to organize without the federal government being a big obstacle, so that the effort could be concentrated on the real opposition down south.
JAY: So Kennedy did order, once he was president, troops to go in and confront George Wallace. [And if, you know,] as you say, Eisenhower did it in ’57, Kennedy did the same thing and perhaps upped the game on that in terms of federal intervention, starting to enforce federal law in the racist southern states. Do you not give him some credit for that? And did that–and what was the effect of that in terms of the black vote and the Democratic Party?
FORD: Well, I don’t consider that to be a Kennedy initiative. That was a response to the massive resistance personified by George Wallace in the South. And if he had failed to do that, he would have failed the Eisenhower test and lost great face, and his stature as a chief executive would have deteriorated. So I don’t consider that to be an initiative, a civil rights initiative by President Kennedy.
JAY: But doesn’t he then have to really confront, and perhaps threaten, really, the split of the Democratic Party, ’cause he’s going against, as you say, the Dixiecrats of his own party in doing this?
FORD: And the Dixiecrats are pushing for–are calling his bluff on that too. They’re going for the brink. They’re playing chicken. They know how important the Southern delegations in Congress have been to the Democratic Party. They want to see who’s going to blink first.
JAY: And so in sending the troops doesn’t he show some backbone in being willing to defy a section of his own party?
FORD: In sending the troops, he resisted any urge to collapse in front of–in the face of this massive resistance by the racists down south.
JAY: So is that a yes?
FORD: You see, I’m resistant to giving Kennedy some credit here that I don’t think is due, in that it was not an initiative by him.
These two guys–I’m talking about the two Kennedy brothers–were pulled kicking and screaming into this confrontation with entrenched white supremacist power in the Democratic Party in the South. They did not relish going up against it. They only did so when they were challenged in ways that they could not afford to back down from. They resented–and all of the literature shows this to be true–they resented the civil rights movement for putting them at loggerheads with forces in the Democratic Party that they did not feel they should antagonize.
JAY: Now, it’s a little bit of a segue, but after the death of President Kennedy–I’ve talked to people that knew Robert Kennedy, and they more or less agree with your analysis of the Kennedys during the Kennedy administration. But they say that Robert Kennedy, after the death of Jack, had a real change in his attitude towards these things, and his commitment to civil rights particularly and similar issues in terms of social equality kind of changed. He wasn’t this hardcore and pure anticommunist opportunist that some people say he was during the administration. Do you see any evidence of that?
FORD: Well, lots of people’s attitudes changed because the movement, this putting of massive numbers of people in motion, does tend to change people’s outlooks. It tends to change, if successful, whole societies. And Robert Kennedy wouldn’t be the only one whose attitudes towards race were transformed in the presence of a movement.
JAY: So to some extent the answer’s yes to that.
FORD: To some extent the answer is yes for a whole bunch of white folks during that period.
JAY: Right, which I guess is mostly to do with the rise of the civil rights movement.
JAY: So, Glen, you must have been around 14, 15 when President Kennedy was assassinated. At the time of his election, there was a lot of euphoria that this was–it’s very Obama-esque when he was elected. There was this great hope of getting out of the Cold War and the paralysis culturally and politically of the 1950s. Did you drink any Kennedy Kool-Aid as a kid? You were young. And then how did the assassination affect your outlook and perhaps people you knew who were, you know, either young or political?
FORD: No, I was inoculated against the effects of such Kool-Aid, largely by Malcolm. And, in fact, I resented the Kennedys. I resented them because there was so much love by so many black folks after that initial introduction to the Kennedys, when they put those phone calls through to assist Dr. Martin Luther King right before the 1960 election, such goodwill accrued to them because of that association. Well, I thought it was unhealthy. And I was only 11 years old. I thought it was unhealthy for black folks at that point in history to be giving up so much affection to untested, untried white politicians.
Later on, after both of the Kennedys were dead, I have to tell you that I resented going into folks’ houses in the neighborhood. Seemed like every other black household had that big portrait with Martin Luther King sandwiched, bookended by JFK and RFK.
JAY: I’ve heard of homes that had pictures which was Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King, and JFK.
FORD: Yeah, all kind of permutations of the same thing. And I used to get outraged by seeing Dr. King captured on each side by these two Kennedy brothers. So, yeah, I have never drunk the Kool-Aid of Kennedy love.
JAY: And this Kennedy love had mostly to do with these interventions, facing up to Wallace and that? ‘Cause as we talked just a little earlier, in terms of legislation and such, there really wasn’t all that much.
FORD: Right. The legislation had to await President Johnson, the Southerner. It did not emanate on Kennedy’s watch. And he resisted seeming to be out front on these issues. He tried to charm his way through.
JAY: And successfully did.
FORD: Yes. Some are still charmed.
JAY: Okay. In part two of our interview with Glen, we’re going to look at foreign policy and Jack Kennedy, of course, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the issue of Vietnam, and leading up to his assassination. So please join us for the next part of Reality Asserts Itself with Glen Ford on The Real News Network.
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