It was early winter 1963, and the Civil Rights Movement was in high gear.

1963 had been seen many tragedies in the movement. Medgar Evers had been assassinated in Jackson, Miss. Four little girls had been murdered when a racist’s bomb went off in a Birmingham, Ala., church.

There had also been victories. The March on Washington had drawn more than 250,000 people to the National Mall, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, the leader of the movement, had inspired a generation with his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech. Volunteers, both Black and White, had converged on the South by the legions, empowering Blacks to register to vote, and to push back against racist policies.

People whose voices had been quieted by intimidation and violence, had banded together to demand their rights. Churches, had brought the word of freedom to their congregations and northern newspapers had begun to regularly to chronicle civil rights abuses.

President John F. Kennedy, who hailed from a family where public service was expected, had been more sympathetic to the civil rights cause than his predecessors. He had designated his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, the U.S. Attorney General, as his official change agent on civil rights issues.

Working together, the Kennedys had sent representatives from the Department of Justice and the FBI to investigate violence against civil rights activists and to challenge racist and segregationist policies.

African Americans believed they had a friend in the White House after his election.

So when news came that Kennedy had been fatally shot in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 by Lee Harvey Oswald, a pall fell over the nation’s Black leadership and many Black citizens.

A front page story under the headline “JFK’s death is mourned by a nation,” described the feeling among Blacks. “The assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas…stunned, angered and saddened colored citizens as it did most other Americans.”

Blacks joined the nation in mourning the loss of the charismatic young leader.

“We have lost the youngest President, the finest friend of the poor, the humble, and the disadvantaged this generation has known,” said an editorial that ran in the {AFRO} on Nov. 30, 1963. “He was a martyr in the cause of human rights—civil, political and social equality of colored people. His fate was the same as the other great President, advocate of freedom and emancipator, Abraham Lincoln…”

In the wake of Kennedy’s death, President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had gotten to know something about the plight of minorities while teaching Mexicans in Texas shortly after graduating from college, took on the civil rights issue. During his presidency, both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed.


Zachary Lester

AFRO Staff Writer