A witness to JFK's fight for equal justice

Fifty years ago, Andrew Young was a civil rights soldier.

He was a new recruit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his effort to eradicate segregation throughout the south.

Young joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1960 on the eve of the presidential election. He is one of the few remaining who witnessed just how important John F. Kennedy’s presidency meant to the call for equal justice.  

“The fact that John F. Kennedy embraced the concept of civil rights … not just for the United States but for the world, is the hallmark of his legacy. … I would even say that -- it was his activities with civil rights that probably led to his death,” Young said.

Andrew Young, Civil rights leader
He believed civil rights was the most controversial issue JFK aligned himself with.

“There were too many deaths around that period.  And all of 'em had something to do with civil rights," Young said.

Young first laid eyes on a then-Sen. Kennedy at a campaign swing through Chicago's south side. He thought it was unusual for a presidential candidate to show up in an all-black neighborhood that didn’t know much about him.

The 28-year-old was registering voters and raising support for the next big push to fight segregation.  

Young saw something in Kennedy he says he hadn't seen before, "His message was not black or white. It was hope for America and America's leadership in the world."

When Young left that night he became a Kennedy supporter.

Kennedy-Johnson handily won the African-American vote on promises of equality and justice.

It was a tough balancing act for the newly elected president who also won the southern white vote.

As a senator, Kennedy had followed the boycotts and Supreme Court victories that ended segregation from a distance. But as a president, Kennedy was forced to pay closer attention, according to Presidential Historian Douglas Brinkley.

"When the African-Americans in 1960 backed JFK, it's a big constituency for him now and you have to feed your constituents," Brinkley said.

Young believes Kennedy received a rude awakening with the civil rights movement at the beginning of his presidency, but had faith that JFK understood what was morally right.

"He knew very little about race relations and segregation.  But his instincts were solid.  And he really, really seemed to trust Martin Luther King, Jr."

Kennedy had followed Dr. King's bus boycott in Montgomery, but Young says he didn't fully grasp the south's refusal to obey the new laws of the land. It was one reason as a senator running for president, Kennedy came to the aid of Dr. King, brokering his release from prison after a sit-in at a diner in Atlanta.

Kennedy and King’s relationship developed through phone calls and letters.

In a letter dated Dec. 10, 1961, King urged the president to "issue at once by executive order a second emancipation proclamation to free all Negroes from second-class citizenship."

Even though at the time Kennedy was dealing with foreign policy issues, like the Cuban missile crisis, he couldn’t ignore matters at home.

Young considers a turning point for Kennedy was when he found men he could trust like Dr. King, Roy Wilkins, or Whitney Young.

“I think it was almost that simple that he felt like the black people who were raising the questions were more honest and intelligent and reliable than the governor's and the sheriffs that he was dealing with on the other side," Young said.

By 1963, the movement had focused on Alabama.

The city of Birmingham had become known as “Bombing-ham.”  Between 1962 and 1963, 60 homes, businesses and churches were burned. And protests sent scores of people to jail, as many as 500 at a time.

Dr. King joined them behind bars. On April 16, 1963 he penned his famous “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail” answering calls from the American clergy to end demonstrations all together.

Part of the letter read: “Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of police brutality is known in every section of this country. Its unjust treatment of Negroes in the courts is a notorious reality. … I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but 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.”

With so many adults in jail, children, some as young as 10 years old, picked up the baton and marched on Birmingham. It was during this time when the nation and its president saw the cruelty of segregation on screen.

Young said it was Kennedy’s visionary efforts behind the scenes that resolved the bloody discord.

“He [Kennedy] realized he had no leverage with the Congress or with the governments of the South.  He called in Hilton, and Marriott, hoteliers. And he talked to them about the importance of stable cities and race relations with the tourists businesses,” Young said.

He believes Kennedy found ways to mobilize the private sector because that was where the movement was doing the most damage.

"Everybody talks about the marches, and the dogs and the fire hoses. But the critical issue there was that for 90 days, 300,000 black people and many white people did not buy anything but food and medicine so the economy had shut down. They had missed a whole quarter of business. And they were anxious to get their businesses moving again,” Young said.

Young went to various businesses and did not argue about race relations, but instead would say, “There is no such thing as black water and white water. Let's take those signs down.  You can hire black people in your stores."

By June the segregated signs came down and blacks were slowly making strides. However, during the same month Governor George Wallace blocked black students from entering the University of Alabama.

President Kennedy sent in the National Guard to protect them, and on June 11, 1963 he went even further by televising his address to the nation.

“The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay? … I shall ask the Congress of the United States to act, to make a commitment it has not fully made in this century to the proposition that race has no place in American life or law," Kennedy said during his speech.

Presidential historian Robert Dallek said Kennedy was reluctant to put a civil rights bill before Congress.

“He knew it was going to alienate the Southern Senators and Congressman and that could hurt him in the next election and also he felt it would deter them from passing his other domestic initiatives, “ Dallek said.

As predicted, Southern Democrats vowed to block the civil rights bill.

However, Kennedy’s assassination changed the political dynamics.

In an address to a joint session of Congress five days after Kennedy’s death, President Lyndon Johnson, a Texan and former Senate leader, appealed to their consciences.

"No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long,” President Johnson said.

It would take another seven months, but on July 2, 1964, Kennedy’s bill was signed into law. Fulfilling the promise he had made on the campaign trail of 1960.

Young believed it was Kennedy’s passion to learn and grow as a leader through the civil rights struggle that made his bill possible.

"He [Kennedy] made you believe in America, you believed he was the one who could lead America through the coming difficulties. Because everyone knew times were coming hard.  He was president when some of the most impactful civil rights events happened in this nation, … He really was one who wanted to understand. ... And he learned with us."