By Giglio, James N. | American Visions, February-March 1995 | Go to article overview


Giglio, James N., American Visions

On February 12, 1963, Lincoln's birthday and approximately 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, President John F. Kennedy sponsored a White House reception for 800 African-American leaders and their spouses. Even though Martin Luther King Jr. had extended his regrets, virtually every other black leader came. This unprecedented reception symbolized how far the White House had come in reaching out to the black establishment.

Already by that date, Kennedy had advanced more African Americans to substantive federal positions than any president before him, leading the NAACP's Roy Wilkins to remark, "Kennedy was so hot on the department heads, the cabinet officers, and agency heads that everyone was scrambling around trying to find himself a Negro in order to keep the President off his neck."

Kennedy also had selected five black federal judges; five may now seem few, but prior to Kennedy's presidency only one African American, William Hastie, was serving on the federal bench. Included in Kennedy's nominations was Thurgood Marshall. In light of his role in Brown v. Board of Education, Marshall's nomination to the second circuit court of appeals in New York was an important symbol of presidential support for civil rights.

When Kennedy took the oath of office, serious questions remained about this commitment. As a congressman and then senator from Massachusetts--a state that lacked a sizable black population--Kennedy had not been particularly sensitized to the problems of African Americans, though he had supported civil rights legislation in the 1950s. Certainly Kennedy's political ambitions had made him sensitive to Southern feelings, and he attempted to paper over the contradiction between the two camps by adopting a moderate course designed to win over both African Americans and Southern whites.

As president, Kennedy proceeded gingerly in the face of stark political realities, including his miniscule election victory, a stronger conservative coalition in Congress and unfavorable public opinion. His reluctance to embrace the cause of the Freedom Rides, his acceptance of an emasculated open housing order, his refusal to protect civil rights workers in voting registration drives in the deep South, his appointment of segregationists to federal judgeships in the South, and his delaying of civil rights legislation until the summer of 1963 disappointed many black activists.

Kennedy's civil rights critics tended to play down the obvious advances that stemmed from his administration's actions, including the president's unflinching defense of the Brown decision in the crises at Ole Miss and the University of Alabama, his vigorous commitment to a major civil rights bill in 1963, and his overall denunciation of racial injustice.

Like African Americans of his own day, historians continue to debate Kennedy's record on racial matters. Interestingly, both his contemporaries and latter-day historians have neglected to examine the president's two black appointments to the White House staff-appointments that exceeded his predecessors' commitments, but which seem woefully inadequate today.

Andrew Hatcher, Kennedy's deputy press secretary, became the most senior African-American member of the administration's White House staff. The bespectacled, stocky Hatcher--the father of seven children, one of whom attended Caroline Kennedy's White House nursery school--was usually mentioned in the contemporary press without reference to color and is barely alluded to in subsequent scholarly publications on Kennedy.

Once the managing editor of the Sun Reponer, an African-American newspaper in San Francisco, Hatcher had in the late 1950s served as an assistant labor commissioner of California in the administration of Democrat Governor Edmund Brown. In 1960 he joined the Kennedy campaign, where he was reunited with Pierre Salinger, with whom he had shared the joys and woes of Adlai Stevenson's presidential campaigns of the 1950s. …

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