As the nation commemorates the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, much has been said about the former president's relationship with the African-American community and the part he played in the Civil Rights Movement.
As a close confidant of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and a dedicated social activist, Harry Belafonte had the opportunity to meet the soon to be commander in chief, who was on the presidential campaign trail at the time. But the entertainer said Kennedy was not very knowledgeable about the African-American struggle beyond the stories that were making headlines.
“When I met with John, I was quite taken by the fact that he knew so little about the black community,” Belafonte told NBC news correspondent Tom Brokaw in a recent interview. “He knew the headlines of the day, but he wasn’t really anywhere nuanced or detailed on the depth of black anguish or what our struggle’s really about.”
Belafonte agreed that Kennedy's original interest in the black community was primarily a political move, and said he didn't initially endorse the presidential hopeful because he lacked organic understanding of the community's fight for civil rights.
“I told him that I would not be in his camp until we knew more clearly and in greater detail what his platform would be in relationship to the black vote and black people in general,” Belafonte said.
Throughout his campaign, Kennedy fought to gain the black vote, a feat that proved to be rather difficult, according to Belafonte.
“I think there’s absolutely no question that not only did history do more to make John Kennedy than John Kennedy did to make history, but that history was precisely the upheaval in which this country had as its dawning,” Belafonte says. “The black movement was very vigorous and beginning to move into a place that really had him imbalanced. He didn’t quite know how to deal with us.”
Many historians agree with Belafonte, saying JFK did more for the Civil Rights Movement in death than he did in life. During an interview with Huff Post Live, Jeff Greenfield, author of "If Kennedy Lived," said Kennedy's assassination helped lay the emotional groundwork for the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
"I think it would have been less successful and much tougher for John Kennedy," Greenfield said. "For one thing it was Kennedy's death in itself that provided a very powerful emotional lever for Lindon Johnson to say 'Let's get the '64 Civil Rights Act passed as a memorial.'"