50 Years Ago: Historians on the Legacies of JFK

Where were you when you learned JFK had been shot? If you were alive at the time, you have an answer to that question. It was one of those moments in which national history becomes personal history for each person in the country. This happened to my country becomes this happened to me. The living, emotional connection to that day in American history makes today, the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, particularly resonant.

We wanted to share a couple perspectives on the anniversary from historians in the UNC Press family. First, Blair L. M. Kelley, author of Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson, writes about Kennedy’s legacy among African Americans:

While I grew up in a household with a bust of King in the family room and a firm belief that no graven images of Jesus should ever be made, there wasn’t a picture of Kennedy. There was certainly admiration for the memory of Kennedy, for the way he dealt with the movement as the activists from King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the young advocates from the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) pushed Kennedy to confront the injustice of racial segregation and the wholesale disfranchisement of black voters in the American South.

My family certainly had profound sympathy for the Kennedy family in the wake of the tragedy, an abiding admiration for the grace of Jacqueline Kennedy, and a sense of heartbreak about what could have been, not only for JFK but also for his brother Bobby, who they always framed as having the potential for pushing the country even farther than his brother had on the quest for equal rights.

However, I don’t recall any blind worship of JFK on the question of civil rights.

Now granted, an anecdotal sample of one doesn’t mean much, but the anecdotal assertion of a hallowed place for JFK in black American homes also papers over the complex relationship Kennedy had with the movement. As he entered the presidency, Kennedy actively put politics before principal, refusing to take a public stand on the movement for fear of alienating southern Democrats who were fervent in their resistance to desegregation.

It’s important to recall that many crucial turning points in the modern civil rights movement had already taken place as Kennedy rose to national prominence.

Read Kelley’s full post, “Remembering the Real JFK: What was the late president’s legacy with black Americans?” at the Grio.

And catch her in a live webcast discussion, “If JFK Had Lived: Domestic Affairs,” at noon ET on HuffPostLive.

Next, Kathryn Cramer Brownell, whose book on the institutionalization of Hollywood style in American politics is scheduled for publication in fall 2014, asks the provocative question: “Why does Kennedy figure so largely in American memory when his presidency was so short, his accomplishments so few (particularly in the domestic arena where he cannot compare with his successor) and his legacy transient?”

In an op-ed for Reuters (co-authored with Bruce J. Schulman) Brownell and Schulman write:

The Kennedy presidency marked a significant milepost in the long-term transformation of American politics — the half-century-long transition from a system in which parties structured national politics, with party organizations forming the primary intermediaries between politicians and citizens, to our political landscape now, in which the governors and the governed interact principally through mass media.

Crucial to this transformation had been a series of innovations that allowed candidates and office holders to communicate with voters, mobilize supporters, and raise funds without reliance on traditional party organizations (and their leaders) and, at the same time, eroded the barriers between politics and entertainment.

Read the full article, “JFK’s Legacy: The Party’s Over,” at Reuters.