Civil Rights leaders and associates of the Rev. Martin Luther King had mixed reactions to the disparaging comments that former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy made about King.
Kennedy’s comments are published in a new book entitled “Jacqueline Kennedy; Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy.”
The book is based on interviews she had with former Kennedy aide Arthur M. Schesinger Jr. with specific instructions that they were not going to be made public until after her death.
She called King a “phony” after she heard that there were FBI tapes of King with women in his hotel. Kennedy also criticized King for mocking Cardinal Richard Cushing, who celebrated mass during her husband’s funeral at St. Mathews Cathedral.
”He made fun of Cardinal Cushing and said that he was drunk at it,” she said. “And things about they almost dropped the coffin. I just can’t see a picture of Martin Luther King without thinking, you know, that man’s terrible.”
Rev. Walter Fauntroy, the former D.C. Delegate to Congress, was King’s White House liaison to Kennedy and he later became the chairman of the House Select Committee on the Assassination of Martin Luther King.
“I make allowance for her doubting the integrity of Martin Luther King. We often have mistaken views of a person,” Fauntroy said. “I am not going to trouble myself on a statement made by a 30-year-old woman made under great stress. All of us are fallible, all of us are prone to accept what is not true.”
Geneva Mays, founder of the Prince George’s County Chapter of Jack and Jill of America, was working for the Department of Education in the 1960s, and she would later become an Equal Employment Opportunity specialist for the government and active in Civil Rights.
Mays was two steps away from King on the Lincoln Memorial when he delivered the “I Have a Dream Speech.” She empathizes with the former first lady. “She had a lot of things going on at the time,” Mays said. “You are sitting next to your husband see half of his head split right in front of you. That is a lot to consider. You can’t fault her. It was a difficult time.”
Here’s what others had to say.
Rev. Jesse Jackson, civil rights activist:
“Dr. King disturbed the comfortable and comforted the disturbed. In many ways, he traumatized many people with changes his leadership brought, but publicly she was very gracious.”
“Bobby Kennedy in his anxiety as Attorney General allowed J. Edgar Hoover to do the wire tapping. It just shows the spirit of the times,” Jackson said. “The people who hurt us was not Jackie Kennedy. The people who hurt us blocked school doors. They arrested us, unleashed the dogs and stood on the floor of the House and spoke against the public accommodations bill and set the climate of violence against us. I still see Jackie Kennedy in very favorable terms.”
Dorie Ladner, 69, field secretary for Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee:
“Those comments do not change my view of Mrs. Kennedy. Like Coretta King and Merlie Evers, she was a widow of the Civil Rights movement. I remember seeing Mrs. Kennedy leaving Ebenezer Baptist Church on Auburn. She was there and people who were in the crowd were happy that she came. She was seen as a friend of the Civil Rights movement and in every black house in the 1960 there was the photo of King in the between the Kennedys who were assassinated.
She was not exposed to the political world. She was more isolated and her reactions came from listening to conversations. When (President John F.) Kennedy made the call to Dr. King in Albany jail, that is what helped him to win the black vote for President.”
Joy Freeman, 34, a District lawyer who worked for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights:
“I think that her comments show that people have their public face about race and they say what is socially responsible then they have their private views, which shows the insidiousness and the challenge of dealing with the root causes of racial disparity.
Racial attitudes and prejudices on equity and opportunity and are often not spoken and are hard to get at. It happened yesterday, but there are still ongoing perceptions that can have a devastating impact because they influence behavior even though they are not articulated.
President Kennedy was probably progressive for his time but we have to put these comments in the context of that period when blacks and whites lived in two separate worlds.”
Seat Pleasant Mayor Eugene Grant:
“Obviously, she has been tarnished and has been exposed for what she really was. That tells you something. She didn’t want the truth of who she was released until he she was dead. In reality, it was LBJ who pushed and put his own reputation on the line to get the Civil Rights act passed and not Kennedy. We need to give credit where credit is due and not a fairy tale. Camelot was fairy tale.”