Mood Swings

A psychiatrist surveys the mind and the wider world

Before Dallas and After

What President John Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr had started to accomplish

Fifty years ago today, President John Kennedy was assassinated.  

It was one of those rare days, no more than five or ten a month, when Martin Luther King Jr was home in Atlanta, rather than on his life-long traveling campaign to raise awareness and funds to fight segregation and racism in America. His wife Coretta called him when she heard the news.  He sat in front of the television and watched the day's terrible events unfold.

1963 had been a good year for both King and Kennedy. Just three months earlier, the March on Washington, led by King and abetted by Kennedy, had resounded in success. Kennedy’s civil rights bill, which he had put forth six months previously, would finally end segregation in the South after a century, and was moving forward in Congress. The two men, once wary of each other, had become close allies.

But America was ambivalent. After Kennedy’s bill became law in 1964, the Democratic Party would never again win most Southern states in presidential elections, as had been the case since the Civil War. 

It is difficult to appreciate today perhaps the depths of opposition to desegregation at that time, in the South, and the depths of racism everywhere in America, including the North.

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John Kennedy had not only begun the process of transforming the place of Blacks in America, he had begun to thaw the Cold War, reaching out to the Soviets, pushing for liberal governments in the Third World. A turning point was in the offing—the end of an imperialist and racist country, and the birth of a nation that returned to its democratic and liberal ideals.

After his death, his successor Lyndon Johnson would become increasingly unhappy with King's criticism of the Vietnam War. By the end of his life, King had been deserted by the core of the Democratic Party, which followed Johnson in upholding that war.  In the last year of his life, King felt alone and isolated. About 70% of Americans had a negative opinion of him in Gallup polls. He must have thought back to how things had begun to change under the former president, to that day which ended an alliance that today is consecrated in the "King-Kennedy" dinners of state Democratic parties throughout the country.  

“Oh, Mommy, we’ll never be free now,” King’s eldest daughter Yolanda, age 8, said to Coretta. “Daddy, the president was your best friend, wasn’t he daddy?” asked 6 year-old Martin Luther III.

King turned to his wife: “This is what is going to happen to me too. I told you this is a sick society.”

Kennedy’s killing was the beginning of a wave of death for those who were trying to turn America in a different direction than it went: Malcolm X in 1965, King and Robert Kennedy in 1968. Except for Malcolm, perhaps there was no conspiracy in each case. Single individuals came to hate each leader so much that they decided to assassinate their ideas. Even so, even if this is the case, it is a sick society that so easily produces such individuals, who would hate the attempt to finally put an end to what President Kennedy so eloquently described as the four great evils of mankind: “tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”

Half a century later, the world still faces these four evils, and is doing little to end them.

Nassir Ghaemi, M.D., M.P.H.,

is Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine, and Director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. more...

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