When John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960, many blacks in Columbus and across the nation considered him a breath of fresh air in the struggle for equality.
Kennedy was a young visionary. He was Catholic and seemed more sensitive to the plight of the disenfranchised than some of his predecessors, local admirers said. The civil rights movement was already in full swing when he was elected, but many looked to him for moral leadership in the fight to end discrimination that had marginalized black Americans for nearly a century.
Kennedy died before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but he initiated the legislation. He also used his authority to protect Freedom Riders from angry white mobs as they traveled through the segregated South. And he forced a defiant Alabama Gov. George Wallace to step aside when he blocked black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
Now, 50 years after Kennedy's assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, he's still considered a hero in the black community.
"He was a pivotal player that continued to propel the civil rights movement during that time," said the Rev. Johnny Flakes III, pastor of Fourth Street Missionary Baptist Church. "I think that may have led to his assassination, because he was going against such an ingrained culture of segregation, discrimination and exploitation of a people. I think he wanted to make a difference, he wanted to right that wrong."
Some local civil rights activists recalled personal experiences that endeared them to the nation's 35th president. Bunky McClung Clark, the daughter of A.J. McClung, one of Columbus' civil rights pioneers, was a freshman at George Williams College in Chicago when Kennedy was running for president. As one of the few black students at a predominantly white school, she was just coming of age and beginning to question the inequities that she had experienced in the South. Yet she could feel the optimism in the air as she and her white classmates watched the first televised debate between Kennedy and then-Vice President Richard Nixon.
Clark, now 72, said she was mesmerized by Kennedy's performance and it opened her eyes to politics. The next summer, she came home and helped launch nonviolent youth demonstrations with Rudy Allen, now a local pastor, and other college students. Clark was arrested with other demonstrators when she sat in the white section of a Columbus city bus. The charges were later dropped, but the demonstrations eventually led to the desegregation of the local bus system, she said.
"To talk about how this started, for me it was the Kennedy-Nixon debates," she said. "That's when I think I came to life, and when I really became interested in what was happening racially. We brought it home that summer."
State Sen. Ed Harbison, a native of Montgomery, Ala., said he was at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery on May 21, 1961, for a mass meeting to welcome Freedom Riders. The church, which was packed with hundreds of parishioners, was besieged by an angry white mob. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was present, along with John Lewis, who is now a long-time U.S. Congressman from Georgia, and other civil rights activists. King had a phone conversation with Kennedy and his brother, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy. They intervened and sent the National Guard to protect the crowd.
"If he had not federalized those troops, there's no doubt about it. When we came out, we would have been attacked," said Harbison, who was only about 17 at the time. "I remember the guards walking young girls and little children home."
Harbison said Kennedy may not have passed any civil rights legislation, but he created an atmosphere of hope that helped motivate his generation to keep pressing on.
"It was not so much the laws he enacted. His election represented change and a new thrust," Harbison said. "He was cautious about getting involved in civil rights, but it was an idea whose time had come."
Johnnie Warner, director of the Columbus Black History Museum, grew up in Cleveland and remembers Kennedy as a legend in his black neighborhood.
"You could ask anybody at that time, even my grandmother, and they would tell you that there were only two white people's pictures in their homes," he said. "And those were pictures of Jesus and John F. Kennedy. It was something like a tradition to them."
But some scholars say the verdict is still out on Kennedy's civil rights legacy. It was, after all, his successor President Lyndon B. Johnson who actually signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
"In general, the question of Kennedy and civil rights is somewhat debated in terms of just how ardent a civil libertarian he was," said Richard Gardiner, assistant professor of history education at Columbus State University. "He certainly on the surface did a number of things that seemed to indicate that he was very much in favor of the civil rights movement. He called Mrs. King when Martin was in jail in Birmingham to express his sympathy for her and he helped the integrations of the universities of Mississippi and Alabama."
However, there were political realities he had to face, said Gary Sprayberry, chairman of the History and Geography Department at CSU. Kennedy was a Democrat and didn't want to offend Southern conservatives in his party who were segregationists.
"He needed their votes in Congress for legislation that he might have wanted to get passed, and so he was always afraid to offend those sensibilities," Sprayberry said. "He was trying to play a political game because he was going to run for re-election."
One Southern Democrat who stood in Kennedy's way was then-Alabama Gov. John Patterson, who still lives near Phenix City. When Freedom Riders were on their way to Alabama, they received threats from white racists. The president called Patterson to request protection. But Patterson, who was elected to office in 1958 as a staunch segregationist, refused to take the call, according to a clip from a PBS "American Experience" documentary on YouTube. He did not want "outside agitators" stirring up trouble in his state, and he told his secretary to tell the president he had gone fishing.
In the 2011 documentary, Patterson said it was the worst mistake of his life.
"When I refused to take the call from the president that was a very, very bad moment for me," said Patterson, who is now in his 90s. "It's hard for me to explain it. If I had to do it over again, I would take the call.
"I should have done what was required to be done irrespective, irregardless of the attitudes of people in the Legislature as far as racial matters were concerned. I didn't get re-elected anyway, so it wouldn't have hurt me none to have done what should have been done. It has haunted me ever since."
The Ledger-Enquirer tried to arrange an interview with Patterson through a family friend, but the family said he was recuperating from an illness.
Sprayberry said despite such opposition, it was ultimately Kennedy's decision to send over legislation that would eventually become the Civil Rights Act to Congress in 1963. But he was slow to act.
"It seemed like the first two years of his presidency, the civil rights movement was sort of like a fire to put out more than anything else," he said. "It wasn't his big campaign or crusade. He was focused on the Cold War, more than anything else."
Sprayberry said it was civil rights activists, who were hosed down, beaten and blocked from schools and other public facilities, who eventually forced Kennedy's hand.
Prior to that, many blacks were still committed to the Republican party, which had freed the slaves under the leadership of President Abraham Lincoln in the 1860s.
Some blacks began shifting to the Democratic party in the 1930s under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal policies. However, the shift accelerated with Kennedy and continued under Johnson, who passed civil rights legislation and implemented Great Society programs that benefited black citizens.
Sprayberry said Kennedy didn't live long enough to see the Civil Rights Act pass, but he did get much of the credit.
"In fact, one of the reasons Lyndon Johnson pushed for it so hard is he wanted it to be Kennedy's legacy," the historian said. "He wanted to fulfill his ambitions toward civil rights."