BLOOMINGTON — A teenager in the early 1940s at Decatur High School, Merlin Kennedy remembers the year he began vocational training, busing tables at a restaurant while his white classmates were sent to office settings.
“We were servants. That was our life,” said the Twin City civil rights activist. “Housework. That’s all we could do. … We weren’t allowed to do anything else.”
By 1959, Kennedy was living in Bloomington and landed a job as a punch press operator at the old Eureka-Williams plant, but it was the Civil Rights Act passed shortly after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination that he credits for putting him on more equal footing with his white co-workers.
Merlin Kennedy leaned on that landmark law to make sure his qualifications would be considered when a more highly paid job as an inspector opened up. “They didn’t have any minority inspectors, but I had training in inspecting at Chrysler Engineering and … I called in the people from Chicago, from the government. (Eureka) had a government contract. They couldn’t discriminate against anybody, so they had to let me have the inspection job,” he said.
He credits President John Kennedy for uniting support for major civil rights progress. “That’s what made the difference, the unity of both races, that didn’t like what was going on, that made a whole lot of difference. And the more it does that, the more it’s going to change,” he said.
Passage of the Civil Rights Act came after the president’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, and the president wasn’t everything minorities had hoped for during his short time in office, said Paul Bushnell, a recently retired Illinois Wesleyan University history professor and an active participant in the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Prior to the 1960 presidential election, candidate Kennedy and his family took pains to ensure the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was able to make a safe exit from an Atlanta, Ga., jail — an act that resulted in widespread support among minorities.
“This was really terrifically important. The black community had only verbal reassurances that Kennedy would be good for their interests, but this business of getting him released from jail was a key, key element. This was action,” Bushnell said. “Churches from east to west heard sermons from pastors that included references and implications that you should vote for this man, and they got a terrific black turnout and vote. You could argue that it was the margin that elected Kennedy.”
Merlin Kennedy said at the time many minorities were afraid to vote, intimidated by “these hooded characters that play Halloween year round” and fearful they’d lose their jobs if they even registered to vote.
“He was a supporter but we didn’t think he could ever get elected,” he said.
But John F. Kennedy encouraged minorities to vote and the “minority and the white people that wasn’t scared, joined together and put him in office,” said Merlin Kennedy. “He was great. He had enough nerve to do a lot of things a lot of them didn’t.”
But political reality had taken hold by the August 1963 March on Washington — marked by King’s now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
“The Kennedy administration had (civil rights) legislation in Congress, ready for Congress,” Bushnell said. “They were not anxious to have this huge demonstration on the (Washington) Mall call attention to it at this point. They were afraid they’d lose some other legislation they had at the time and really didn’t want the waters to be stirred up here.”
In the end, President Kennedy never saw his civil rights proposals pass. “I think it was all pretty much a calculation that he couldn’t get the Senate Democrats to go along with him, because the party itself would drag its feet, that it was hazardous especially before an election,” Bushnell said.
After the assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson took over and it was his legislative dexterity that found enough congressional support for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“He knew what every senator wanted and what every senator feared, so he could play them like a master pianist,” Bushnell said. “It demonstrates how much he could work on the fine points of legislating and Kennedy himself, alone without Johnson, would not have been able to do that.”
Learning of the assassination, Merlin Kennedy said, “I couldn’t believe it at first that somebody that high up got assassinated. It was kind of scary.”
Bushnell said President Kennedy had come to mean a lot to those rooting for more civil rights.
“They saw prospects here that Kennedy was going to bring about change for blacks and so there was a terrific sense of having been abandoned with Kennedy’s death,” Bushnell said. “This is the first real modern assassination of a president and it left the whole country feeling terribly, terribly wounded.”