Not so long ago many of the homes of African Americans had three pictures hanging on the wall—John F. Kennedy, Jesus Christ and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. The three usually hung as a triptych with Kennedy to the left of Jesus and M.L.K., Jr. to the right. Growing up, I never questioned why these three pictures graced so many homes.

Kennedy was held in high regard by most African Americans.  Black Americans saw in him someone who despite his privileged life had empathy for their plight. Most importantly they believed he would work to improve race relations.

That belief was tested early on in Kennedy's presidency as he resisted public and private pleas to take action against the brutality directed toward the non violent civil rights organizers including the Freedom Riders. It was  disappointing to supporters who knew Kennedy likely would not have been president were it not for his relationship with King.

When he ran for the White House in 1960, the modern civil rights movement was gaining momentum with boycotts and sit ins across the South.

King was arrested after a sit in in Atlanta and thrown into Georgia’s Reidsville prison.  Coretta Scott King reached out to Kennedy advisor Harris Wofford. Against the advice of many in his campaign, the candidate called Mrs. King. He knew it was a risky move since he needed Southern votes to win. His brother Bobby later intervened with local law enforcement.

Upon his release, King said of Kennedy’s call “I think he did something that expressed deep moral concern, but at the same time it was politically sound.” Kennedy won the presidency by one percent; African American enthusiasm was key, even though laws in the South prevented many African Americans from voting. 

But, despite that call, Kennedy was a slow to support civil rights. He needed prodding before he finally took a stand, but a stand it was.

In a national broadcast, he declared, “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution.”  The wave of non-violent demonstrations had laid bare the nation’s racial inequities, and the President was moved to call for legislation to end segregation. He said America “will not be fully free until all of its citizens are free.”

Kennedy’s words cemented his place in history, his place in the hearts of many African Americans, and he became a fixture on the wall of black homes.

This week, 50 years after his death, the nation pauses to reflect on the life and legacy of John F. Kennedy. The Kennedy/ Jesus/ King wall of honor is a footnote to this history, a particular cultural tribute to a young president who didn’t live to see the changing America he hoped to lead.