A Martyr For Civil Rights?

James Piereson describes how John F. Kennedy, who was murdered by a communist, was transformed by the liberal establishment into a “martyr for civil rights” and a victim of “bigotry” and how that fueled the chaotic 1960’s.

An excerpt:

Immediately after John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, Jacqueline Kennedy, along with other members of the Kennedy family, decided that the slain president should be viewed, like Abraham Lincoln, as a martyr for civil rights and equal justice for all. The funeral rites for President Kennedy were organized on the model of Lincoln’s, provoking continuous pronouncements by journalists and television commentators covering the funeral about the similarities between the two fallen leaders. Russell Baker, covering the mourning ceremonies for the New York Times, wrote that “the analogy to Lincoln’s death must have been poignantly apparent to most of those who passed (Kennedy’s) flag-draped coffin.”

Few called attention to the disquieting fact that President Kennedy had been shot by a communist whose motives were probably linked more closely to the Cold War than to the civil rights struggle. Lee Harvey Oswald, the likely assassin, was no arm-chair or academic communist out to impress relatives or associates with his radical theories, but a dyed-in-the-wool communist who had defected to the Soviet Union in 1959 and had spent nearly three years there before returning to the United States in 1962 with his Russian wife and infant child. During the months leading up to the assassination he had been active in a front group in New Orleans that defended Castro and attacked U.S. efforts to oust his communist regime in Cuba.

The attempt to portray President Kennedy as a modern-day Lincoln was inspired by the purest of motives but it turned out to have had the most unfortunate consequences for the nation and for the liberal movement that Kennedy represented. Kennedy’s assassination, as it happened, was not at all like Lincoln’s. The two shattering events had political consequences that were directly opposite of one another: Lincoln’s assassination tended to unite the nation around the ideals of union, freedom, and emancipation; Kennedy’s assassination divided the nation against itself, sowing endless division, confusion, and controversy that continued for a generation afterwards. Much of this was caused by the false portrayal of President Kennedy as a martyr for civil rights.

… The cultural and political understanding of the assassination had become detached from the details of the event itself. It appeared that the liberal leadership of the country -the New York Times, James Reston, Earl Warren, Mike Mansfield, President Johnson, religious leaders, even Mrs. Kennedy – had come together to blame the assassination of the president on hatred and intolerance which (they said) had engulfed the country. It was but a short step from here to the conclusion that the nation itself had to bear the guilt for Kennedy’s death.

Taylor Branch, in his history of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, described Kennedy’s surprising legacy as it was crafted from the public ceremonies surrounding his death:

“In death the late president gained credit for much of the purpose that King’s movement had forced upon him in life. No death had ever been like his – Niebuhr called him an elected monarch. In a mass purgative of hatred, bigotry, and violence, the martyred president became a symbol of the healing opposites. President Johnson told the nation that the most fitting eulogy would be swift passage of his civil rights bill. By this and other effects of mourning, Kennedy acquired the Lincolnesque mantle of a unifying crusader who had bled against the thorn of race.”

Branch seemed to understand that the anomalous facts surrounding Kennedy’s death had been redirected by the culture along more familiar and established paths. There was an irony in this for Kennedy had come slowly to the support of the movement King led. It was not even the case that the slain president “had bled against the thorn of race.” Yet this is what was believed, and this surprising response to the assassination had profound consequences. Branch went on to observe that “The reaction to Kennedy’s assassination pushed deep enough and wide enough in the high ground of political emotion to allow the civil rights movement to institutionalize its major gains before receding.” Kennedy had indeed come to be seen as a martyr for civil rights and the heir to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.

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