John F. Kennedy was president of the United State when the March on Washington took place fifty years ago this week. Other presidents had had black visitors, such as Teddy Roosevelt, who received Booker T. Washington. But Kennedy was, I believe, the first to have a significant number of (non-servant) African-American guests. He made a point also of inviting African diplomats, but it was not a simple matter for them to drive from New York to Washington. Route 40 in Maryland–this was before Interstate 95–was especially unwelcoming and in fact hostile for any dark-skinned person seeking public accommodation, even for a lunch meal. Kennedy was upset at the image problem this created and the propaganda opportunity segregationist maltreatment offered to the Russians. His administration made some attempts via the State Department, only very partially successful, to get restaurants to serve those with diplomatic passports. At one point Kennedy expressed outrage to Angier Biddle Duke, the State Department chief of protocol. JFK snapped, not, as Duke first thought, at the restaurant owners, but at the African diplomats themselves. “Can’t you tell these African ambassadors not to drive on Route 40? It’s a hell of a road….Tell these ambassadors I wouldn’t think of driving from New York to Washington. Tell them to fly.”
And let them eat cake on the plane!
(Sources: Mary Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights; Nicholas Bryant, The Bystander)
- March on Washington was far from popular in 1963 (thegrio.com)
- Remembering my time at the 1963 March on Washington | Clancy Sigal (theguardian.com)