For many African Americans in the country, the assassination of John F. Kennedy represented the assassination of civil rights progress for which they had strived and hoped.
The 35th president put in motion events that would ultimately lead to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which were consequently passed during Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency. East Texas African Americans recall the pain that rippled through the community after hearing of his untimely death.
“I was 12 or 13 at the time, and I remember my mother had a real sense of loss about it. She was very active in the civil rights movement,” said the Rev. Michael Mast of Greater St. Mary’s Baptist Church. “She felt a loss as if it were a family member.”
Mary Berry, 69, was a 19-year-old student at Alcorn State University the day Kennedy was assassinated. The news spread quickly on campus.
“I remember professors were distraught, crying,” Ms. Berry said. “Everybody was crying, and it got very, very dark. There was just a terrible storm happening. It was a downpour. It really kind of magnified our mood. It was a feeling of despair … That storm was really a depiction of the mood of everybody — deep and dark and brooding.”
Ms. Berry said her parents — a railroad worker and homemaker — were saddened by the news as well. Her father, who was not formally educated but astute in politics, felt the hope slip away.
“He had the same feeling: What are we going to do now? We don’t have anybody to help us now.”
Ms. Berry had left her hometown, Meridian, Miss., for college just before the church burnings and other civil rights upheavals occurred there. By 1964, one of her high school classmates’ brother, James Chaney, was among the three civil rights leaders murdered in a high profile case, which eventually spawned Hollywood movies.
These events were occurring across the South and with it, African Americans suffered economically. They had to fight for the right to vote and their schools were substandard. To them, President Kennedy was the one to turn things around.
“He had visions of a new frontier, and he seemed supportive, especially at a time when nobody really was supportive,” Ms. Berry said.
When King was thrown in an Atlanta jail for civil disobedience in 1960, then-Sen. Kennedy and his brother, Robert Kennedy, were instrumental in his release.
“I think when that happened, that kind of convinced African Americans, ‘OK, we may have someone with a sympathetic ear.’”
For many African Americans, Kennedy was a symbol that hope was on the horizon.
“(When Kennedy was running for president), we were hopeful, extremely hopeful, because of his campaign rhetoric,” said Andrew Melontree, former Tyler city councilman and Smith County commissioner. “We doubted he would be elected because of his Catholic faith, but we continued to work hard to help the campaign. … He was audacious enough to try (and pass the civil rights act), but we had some doubt about it, after everything we’d seen. Some of that doubt was lifted when he was elected.”
Many theories about the president’s death swirled, and the African American community had its own ideas.
“It’s not a popular theory, but people felt like they killed him because of his stance for civil rights,” Ms. Berry said. “It’s like they killed your best friend. They killed your protector.”
But not everyone in the country shared the deep grief, Melontree realized when he heard the news.
“I was working as a tech at a medical center here, and for some reason, I had gone out,” he said. “When I came back, I saw that some of my colleagues were jubilant that he had been killed. Even one woman that I really respected was excited. They were saying things like, ‘The South will live again!’ I didn’t respect her after that. I am 83 years old, and I’ll never forget that.”
Debbie Kirkland-Waffer, who was only 7 years old at the time, doesn’t remember a lot about that day. What occurred afterward stands out most.
“I believe that, for the most part, whatever emotions that were portrayed were hidden from us because we wouldn’t have understood completely,” Mrs. Waffer said. “What was most visible for me was the fact that during the state funeral we all gathered around the television, and it seemed like it went on for hours. That’s just how important it was.”
She also could identify what Kennedy meant to the African American community, as evident from the experiences of her grandfather, who was a minister. She said pamphlets were circulated around churches explaining what the Kennedys had done for King.
“The Kennedys, for the first time, I believe, made black people feel like we had a place in this country,” she said. “For the first time, we were going to be listened to and given some relief in the state of inequality in this country.”
Both Berry and Mrs. Waffer recalled that African American families had a portrait of John F. Kennedy on their wall.
“In my grandparents’ home there was this iconic kind of triad of portraits,” she said. “It was the picture of Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King Jr. and then there was John F. Kennedy. So clearly, he was a very important person and one that African Americans respected quite a bit. Now that I’m older and I can reflect back on some of the history, I can see why.”