Meet the African Americans who served in the Kennedy administration

Mildred Europa Taylor April 16, 2021
Kennedy meets with leaders of the March on Washington at the White House, August 28, 1963. AP/File

In 1960 when John Kennedy was running a close race with Richard Nixon in the U.S. presidential campaign, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was in a Georgia state prison on a traffic violation. Kennedy was advised to make a sympathy call to King’s wife, Coretta Scott King. Still undecided, with others against the idea, it was Louis E. Martin who helped persuade Kennedy to place that telephone call to Coretta to express shock over the jailing of her husband.

That phone call was instrumental in Kennedy winning a majority of the Black vote in the 1960 Presidential Election. And this was all thanks to the work of Martin, who would become known as ”the godfather of Black politics”, largely for influencing some historical presidential decisions regarding African Americans and bringing more Blacks into government in the late twentieth century. Trained as a journalist, he worked with four Democratic presidents: Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Jimmy Carter often as “publicity aide” and then as a liaison between African Americans and these presidents. Thanks to this Black journalist and newspaper publisher, scores of African Americans got placed into government and judicial positions during the Kennedy administration.

Kennedy does hold a complicated place in Black history. To some older African Americans, he sympathized with the Black struggle more than any other president before him. Yet, others think he failed to push hard on civil rights legislation. Kennedy did take that stance so as not to lose southern support for legislation on many fronts, historians say. What is however agreed on is the fact that he appointed unprecedented numbers of African Americans to high-level positions in the administration — about 50 Black men and women.

Unlike previous presidents, the positions Kennedy offered were not just “advisory,” but were for “Negro Decision-Makers,” according to Martin. Here are some of the African Americans who served in his administration:

Carl Rowan

The American journalist, writer, and public official was one of the first African-American officers in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Rowan broke color barriers in the State Department when he was appointed deputy assistant secretary of state in the Kennedy administration.

Andrew T. Hatcher

He was the first African American to serve as associate White House press secretary in 1960, holding one of the highest positions in the U.S. government. Pierre Salinger was then the White House press secretary. Hatcher, being the number 2 communications person, did act as Salinger’s substitute for 200 days as the official White House spokesmen at press briefings, according to reports.

Mabel Murphy Smythe

The American diplomat is well known for serving as the United States Ambassador to the United Republic of Cameroon from May 1977 to February 1980 and concurrently Ambassador to the Republic of Equatorial Guinea from December 1979 to February 1980. During the Kennedy administration, Smythe, who had had a long interest in educational exchange programs, was appointed to the U.S. Advisory Commission on Educational Exchange.

Robert Weaver

Robert Weaver was the administrator of the Housing and Home Finance Agency (HHFA). According to the Chicago Defender, it was “the highest appointive federal office ever held by an American Negro.” As the administrator of the Housing and Home Finance Agency, Weaver helped author the 1961 compilation housing bill. He also helped lobby for the 1962 Senior Citizens Housing Act, according to the Miller Center. Weaver continued working at HHFA during the Johnson administration, drafting all of the administration’s housing and urban renewal programs. He further worked on the $7.8 billion housing bill in 1965, which included “an expansion of public housing and programs for rent supplementing low-income families,” the Miller Center added.

Lt. Commander Samuel Gravely

He was the first Black Navy commander to lead a combat ship. He commanded the USS Falgout (DE-324) from January 1962 to June 1963.

Clifford Leopold Alexander Jr.

The American lawyer, businessman and public servant was called to Washington to serve as a foreign affairs officer on the National Security Council staff in 1963 during the Kennedy administration. He later became secretary of the army under President Jimmy Carter.

A. Leon Higginbotham

Kennedy in September 1962 appointed Higginbotham as a commissioner on the Federal Trade Commission, making him the first African American ever to be appointed to a federal regulatory agency.

A PBS article cites the following Black people as ambassadors:

Carl Rowan, to Finland

Mercer Cook, to Niger

Clifton Wharton, to Norway

Federal judges

Thurgood Marshall, nominated Marshall to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, a new position.

James Benton Parsons, Northern District of Illinois, the first black federal district judge to serve inside the continental U.S.

Marjorie Lawson, Juvenile Court of the District of Columbia, and

Wade McCree, Eastern District of Michigan

The attorneys were:

Cecil Poole, Northern California; and Merle McCurdy, Northern Ohio

President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity

Azie Taylor, who later became U.S. treasurer under President Carter; John Hope, Alice Dunnigan, Howard Woods, Hobart Taylor, and John Wheeler.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: April 16, 2021


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