As the national media fills with tributes, analyses and memories of President John F. Kennedy to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his assassination, Harry Belafonte, in an interview with Tom Brokaw, offered his less-than-glowing recollections of Kennedy as a man who was not very familiar with the Black community.
“When I met with John, I was quite taken by the fact that he knew so little about the Black community,” Belafonte told Brokaw, saying he was reluctant to offer his support. “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, who initially was backing Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson, was being heavily wooed by Kennedy because Belafonte was seen as a leader and celebrity with a close relationship with Martin Luther King Jr.
“I asked him in detail about Dr. King,” Belafonte recalled. “He knew very little, just knew that somewhere, there was this force. And he was out there, making some mischief.
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.
I remember him saying to me just as he’s about to leave that — if he down the road was able to gain endorsement for the primaries and he became the official nominee for the Democratic Party, would I then endorse him? I said, ‘Well, let’s cross that bridge when you come to it and let’s see where the whole political landscape resided.’”
After Kennedy won the primary, Belafonte got to know the Kennedy camp better, particularly his brother Robert, who Belafonte said was moving more vigorously on the issue of civil rights. So the Kennedy camp calling again.
“When they came that time, they had far more details on the Black vote, what the platform would look like and I said yes,” Belafonte recalls. “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. 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.”