I have long been puzzled by why so many African-American families have portraits of John F. Kennedy in their homes in a place of honor alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.?
President Kennedy was a hesitant and lukewarm supporter of civil rights, which is better than nothing. If you wanted to honor a white champion of civil rights, why not honor Abraham Lincoln or even Lyndon Johnson?
The historian and writer Vijay Prashad asked this question of an African-American friend and social justice warrior when he was living in Providence, Rhode Island.
Alice Hicks has two pictures on the wall of her living room: portraits of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. [snip]
I remember Alice, even as she struggled with her own health, coming to meetings, sitting down and quietly fulminating about problems, or being on the street at a press conference or demonstration. She was a pillar of strength.
Each time I went to pick her up at a meeting, and as I waited for her to get her things or to get me something to drink (which was part of her obligatory kindness), I stared at the portraits.
One day, casually, I asked her why she had a picture of JFK on the wall. I could understand the King picture, but not that of a man who had not given King and his movement the kind of support necessary. And besides, I said, it was LBJ who pushed Congress to pass the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.
She smiled at me, ready to indulge my impertinence. “Of course President Johnson did those things. And those acts were important. But were they enough? What did they get us? This … ” Her weak arms opened expansively to encompass not only her living room but her neighborhood, her world.
“President Johnson gave us something. I accept that. But it was Dr. King and President Kennedy who allowed us to dream. President Johnson’s real gift was not even a pale shadow of those dreams.” [snip]
She prepared me [snip] to see the 1964-65 laws both as a culmination of a struggle and the opening of a new struggle.
A portrait of President Johnson might have meant that the story ended with the laws. But the presence of the portraits of President Kennedy and Dr. King indicated that the unfinished dream was more powerful than the small victories that come on the way.