DALLAS — Deeply divided by culture and language, blacks and Hispanics in the early 1960s often were at odds in their struggle for civil rights.
But both groups found common ground when it came to the person they believed might offer them a national voice in their fight for equality: President John F. Kennedy.
The nation’s 35th president held an esteemed place in their hearts – and living rooms – right alongside Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez and even Jesus Christ.
More than anything, Kennedy offered hope.
So when an assassin’s bullet silenced that voice in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, many blacks and Latinos thought it had shattered their dreams, too.
“Back in the day, in households in Alabama where I’m from, his portrait was on the wall along with King and Jesus Christ,” said Dale Long, who works for the city of Dallas.
Long was 11 when Kennedy was killed. He was a member of the Birmingham, Ala., church where a bomb killed four little girls during Sunday school only two months earlier.
“After watching the March on Washington in August, the church bombing in September and then his assassination in November,” Long said, “I thought black people were doomed.”
While the entire country grieved, Hispanics lost a man they saw as a friend, said Ignacio Garcia, author of Viva Kennedy: Mexican Americans in Search of Camelot and a Latino-history professor at Brigham Young University.
“Kennedy was from an ethnic group, so he understood the politics of relationships,” Garcia said. “It translated well with Mexican-Americans, and they felt they had a relationship with him. They liked him.
“The martyrdom solidified all those images.”
While Kennedy is still held in high regard by many in the black community today, some say he could have pushed harder in the civil rights struggle,
Several civil rights experts say Kennedy, a Democrat, faced a political quandary. Intellectually, he opposed segregation. At the same time, the issue represented political quicksand.
During the 1960 presidential election, many prominent blacks – the ones who could vote – were Republicans. Moreover, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who garnered nearly 40 percent of the black vote in 1956, had helped his party’s cause by ordering federal intervention in the desegregation of Little Rock, Ark., schools.
But, in one of the tightest elections ever, a simple phone call may have won Kennedy the presidency and the gratitude of blacks across the country.
Leading up to the election, King was arrested in Georgia during a sit-in. While other protesters were quickly released, King was held on a minor traffic charge and sentenced to hard labor. Many of his supporters feared for his safety, and they reached out to Kennedy and his Republican opponent, Richard Nixon.
Nixon made some nebulous behind-the-scenes calls, and Robert Kennedy, JFK’s brother, called the judge in the case.
It was JFK, though, who personally reached out to King’s family, including making a brief phone call to his wife, Coretta. King’s father, who had backed Nixon, publicly came out in support of Kennedy. King was released and Kennedy, with widespread black support, narrowly edged Nixon in the election.
“It was a very historical thing for these calls to come to Mrs. King,” said the Rev. Peter Johnson, a Dallas civil rights leader who once marched with King.
“The black media spread the word about the phone call. It was very important.”
Many factors, experts say, might explain Kennedy’s popularity with Hispanics.
Three that especially seemed to resonate: He was Catholic, he served in World War II – as did up to 500,000 Hispanics – and he was married to a glamorous woman who spoke Spanish.
But mostly, they say, Hispanic politicians saw Kennedy as someone their people would rally around, someone who was somewhat sympathetic to their cause.
Garcia said community leaders such as civil rights advocate Hector Garcia of Corpus Christi worked with the Kennedy campaign to visit barrios in the Southwest, especially South Texas.
There they would spread the word about how Mexican-Americans’ voices would be heard by a charismatic politician.
“This generation had a connection with Catholicism,” said Marc Rodriguez, director of the Civil Rights Heritage Center at Indiana University South Bend. “I’m sure that some of their efforts were effective because they went through churches, and priests were hammering away at the pulpit saying voting for Kennedy was helping a Catholic take office in the White House.”
It also didn’t hurt that the future first lady recorded a Spanish ad in 1960 reminding Hispanics to vote and ending with Mexican-Americans’ own campaign cry, “Que viva Kennedy!”
“I really wanted him to be president,” said Angel Zavala, 91, who lives in Taylor, north of Austin. “I liked his wife and I liked him because he was a war veteran and so am I.”
Zavala volunteered with the 1960 campaign. He organized veterans and helped Hispanics pay poll taxes, which ended in Texas in 1964, and gave voters rides to the polls.
Kennedy sent him a signed thank-you note and an invitation to an inaugural ball. Zavala was unable to attend, but the invitation is still framed in his living room, he said.
Kennedy’s election meant hope for blacks that civil rights laws would become a major theme of his presidency.
“I think President Kennedy did what we hope with President Obama and other presidents,” said the Rev. L. Charles Stovall, pastor of Light of Love Covenant Community Church in Dallas.
“That he would … enact policies and leadership that would affirm the rights and the needs of African-Americans and poor people.
“He had the kind of presence and the kind of spirit that he wouldn’t simply affirm the status quo.”
Albert Valtierra, who was in high school at the time of JFK’s assassination, said Kennedy represented a promise that things would be better.
“We looked up to him a lot,” said Valtierra, now president of the Dallas Mexican American Historical League. “My mother had his picture right next to the Virgen de Guadalupe.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but he gave us hope.”
The optimism that ushered Kennedy into office began to dwindle as the realities of politics set in.
He frequently talked about the need for equality in America, and he had friendly conversations with minority leaders.
And while he was uneasy about the March on Washington in August 1963, the event that catapulted King into the national spotlight, he made it a point to invite the civil rights leader back to the White House afterward.
But by then, the 1964 elections were on the horizon and Kennedy knew the obstacles he faced.
“In that last year of his presidency, a lot of the Southern whites were turning against Kennedy because of civil rights,” said Dr. David M. Barrett, a political science professor at Villanova University.
“He didn’t want to lose Texas. He wanted to win Florida. He wanted to win part of the South at least.
“He tried to do two things at once that were mutually incompatible, which was push civil rights and still hold on to the votes of Southern whites.”
Barrett said polls at the time showed a “plurality of whites” believed Kennedy was moving too fast on the issue of black equality. Many black leaders thought just the opposite.
“Like most white men, John Kennedy thought we should go slow and not push and be patient,” said Johnson, the 68-year-old Dallas civil rights veteran.
“There was a generation of kids like me who were in college, especially in the South, who said we aren’t going to go slow.”
The subsequent lack of appointments for Hispanic politicians left a bad taste in the younger generation of Latinos.
That frustration was a springboard for civil rights in the South in the mid-’60s and the Chicano movement years later across the Southwest.