Now Digitized: Herbert Tucker’s Black Voter Outreach in JFK’s Campaigns

By Stacey Flores Chandler, Reference Archivist

In 1948, 33-year-old Herbert E. Tucker, Jr. was a new lawyer and a rising leader in Boston’s NAACP branch when he first crossed paths with a young Congressman who made an impression: John F. Kennedy. Over the next few years, as Tucker grew his activism and his law practice (the first Black-owned law firm in Boston), he also deepened his understanding of the Boston Black community’s needs — and his connections to the city’s best-known Black organizers, journalists, and politicians.

PC-0818. Herbert E. Tucker, Jr. (right, holding railing) looks on as John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy greet unidentified guests at a campaign event with the Massachusetts Citizens’ Committee for Minority Rights, 1958. President’s Collection Photographs.*

So when John F. Kennedy’s 1952 Senate campaign team needed help understanding issues that mattered to Massachusetts’s Black voters, they reached out to Tucker. He joined up again for both Kennedy’s 1958 Senate campaign and 1960 Presidential campaign, conducting voter outreach and building pro-Kennedy coalitions in Black communities across the country. In 2008, Tucker’s family donated his papers to the JFK Library archives, giving researchers a glimpse into his work and its impact on the 1958 and 1960 elections. We’ve recently finished digitizing and cataloging Tucker’s papers for free online access, and we’re excited to share them with you!

Senator Kennedy has won for all Americans:  better housing, higher wages, protection of civil rights, more jobs, greater educational opportunities, higher retirement, and unemployment benefits.
For the family: 
Housing.  Senator Kennedy has fought consistently for public housing to assure adequate homes for all Americans. This year he successfully urged extension of the GI Home Loan program for veterans and voted for emergency housing legislation to provide more homes and more jobs.
Slum clearance. Senator Kennedy this year supported a 6-year urban renewal and slum clearance program to wipe out the housing decay in America's cities. 
Schools. Senator Kennedy introduced legislation to provide federal funds for construction of new schools and additional classrooms. He also successfully supported programs to construct schools in areas hurt by federal projects and to provide science education to youngsters in all income brackets.
Cheaper utilities. Senator Kennedy led the fight against legislation which would have boosted natural gas rates in New England. He also brought atomic electric power to Massachusetts.
Lower taxes. Senator Kennedy voted for abolition of excise taxes including those on automobiles and transportation. 
Hospitals. Senator Kennedy strengthened the Hill-Burton program for Hospital Construction. 
For the Working Man:
Senator Kennedy introduced the bill which raised the national minimum wage from 75 cents to $1 an hour and fought to extend minimum wage coverage to an additional $5 million workers.
Stronger unionism. Senator Kennedy is an author of both the Kennedy-Ives Bill to strengthen unionism by ridding it of a minority element of racketeers and the Kennedy-Douglas-Ives bill which will safeguard workers pensions and welfare funds.
More jobs. Senator Kennedy sponsored legislation to grant federal aid to individuals, communities, and industries hurt by foreign imports and to provide federal assistance to areas with heavy unemployment.
Greater unemployment benefits. Senator Kennedy introduced legislation to extend, increase, and standardize unemployment compensation benefits.
Safer working conditions. Senator Kennedy successfully pushed through Congress legislation to establish safe working conditions for longshoremen and allied workers in the nation's most hazardous industry.
For minority groups:
Civil rights. Senator Kennedy vigorously supported the Civil Rights bill of 1957 which guarantees voting rights to all citizens. He fought in this Congress - and will fight in the future - to grant the Attorney General authority to intervene in all civil rights cases.
School integration. Senator Kennedy repeatedly had endorsed the Supreme Court's school integration ruling and this year introduced legislation making it a federal criminal offense to bomb integrated schools, churches, or homes.
Equality for all. Senator Kennedy has supported on 11 separate occasions establishment of a Fair Employment Practices Committee and in 1956 led the fight against an Electoral College Amendment which would have reduced the political power of minority groups in cities.
Fought filibuster. Senator Kennedy repeatedly has fought to revise Senate rules to abolish the filibuster and will lead a similar fight next year.
Opposed discrimination. Senator Kennedy by both his voting record and his public statements has proved his opposition to the poll tax and to discrimination anywhere in our society.
Urged statehood. Senator Kennedy successfully urged statehood for Alaska and has fought for Statehood for Hawaii and home role for the District of Columbia.
HTPP-001-001-p0002. Brochure for John F. Kennedy’s 1958 Senate campaign, highlighting the Senator’s work on civil rights and other issues of importance to Black communities. Herbert Tucker Personal Papers, Box 1, “1958 Senatorial campaign: Campaign materials”

The year Tucker and Kennedy met, Black voters chose the Democratic Presidential candidate, Harry Truman, at an overwhelming 78%. But with widespread racial discrimination, segregation, and violence – and no major political party united in fighting the policies behind these injustices — Black voters weren’t necessarily a unified voting bloc. By 1952, roughly half of Black Americans identified as Democrats, and Black community leaders like Herbert Tucker felt many politicians, including John F. Kennedy, weren’t prepared to earn their votes.

In his 1967 oral history with the JFK Library, Tucker remembered Kennedy’s early relationship with Black communities in Massachusetts: “It was a matter of…distrust. …Mainly because he had had no contact, had made no effort to have any contact with Negroes and seemed to be impervious to the problems.” But, Tucker said, “There were just a few of us who had faith in him…that once he became familiar with the problem, that we were sure that something could be done about it.” Tucker recalled advising the 1952 Senate campaign, introducing Kennedy to Black civic leaders and organizations, and even paying for Kennedy’s NAACP membership (“He still,” Tucker laughed, “owes me two dollars.”).

PC0814. John F. Kennedy stands with a group at a campaign event with the Massachusetts Citizens’ Committee for Minority Rights, 1958. President’s Collection Photographs.*

Kennedy won his election, but Tucker noted that “most liberals were very cautious as to how far they were going to take a stand on some of these [civil rights] problems, and he followed into that pattern.” It wasn’t long before Kennedy voted with Southern Democrats, including staunch segregationists, on two key issues during the Senate’s debate over the 1957 Civil Rights Act – elements that the NAACP publicly slammed as attempts “to kill the Civil Rights Bill.”

When the Civil Rights bill passed the House, Senator Knowland and Senator Douglas led a move to keep the bill from going to Senator Eastland’s Judiciary Committee. Senator Russell of Georgia raised a point of order against the plan to bypass Eastland's committee. The point of order was overruled by the Senate on June 20 1957 by a vote of 45 to 39. 

Those who voted for Russell's point of order were in effect voting to give Eastland a chance to kill the Civil Rights bill. 

Those who voted against it were voting to give a Civil Rights bill an advantage not heretofore offered. Senators voting to send the bill to Eastland's committee were:

Hill Democrat Alabama, Sparkman Democrat Alabama

Hayden Democrat Arizona, Goldwater Republican Arizona

 Fulbright Democrat Arkansas, McClellan Democrat Arkansas

 Frear Democrat Delaware, Williams Republican Delaware 

 Holland Democrat Florida, Smathers Democrat Florida 

 Russell Democrat Georgia, Talmadge Democrat Georgia 

Ellender Democrat Louisiana, Long Democrat Louisiana

Kennedy Democrat Massachusetts 

Eastland Democrat Mississippi, Stennis Democrat Mississippi 

Mansfield Democrat Montana, Murray Democrat Montana

 Bible Democrat Nevada, Malone Republican Nevada 

 Anderson Democrat New Mexico 

Irvin Democrat North Carolina, Scott Democrat North Carolina

 Young Republican North Dakota 

 Lausche Democrat Ohio

 Kerr Democrat Oklahoma

 Morse Democrat Oregon

 Johnston Democrat South Carolina, Thurmond Democrat South Carolina

Mundt Republican South Dakota

 Gore Democrat Tennessee, Kefauver Democrat Tennessee

 Johnson Democrat Texas, Yarborough Democrat Texas 

Byrd Democrat Virginia, Robertson Democrat Virginia

 Magnuson Democrat Washington

O’Mahoney Democrat Wyoming 

 Senators voting against sending the bill to Eastland's committee were:

 Noland Republican California, Kuchel Republican California

 Allott Republican Colorado, Carroll Democrat Colorado 

Bush Republican Connecticut, Purtell Republican Connecticut

 Church Democrat idaho, Dwarshak Republican Idaho

 Dirksen Republican Illinois, Douglas Republican Illinois 

 Jenner Republican Indiana 

Hickenlooper Republican Iowa 

Carlson Republican Kansas, Schoeppel Republican Kansas 

Cooper Republican Kentucky, Morton Republican Kentucky 

 Smith Republican Maine

 Beall Republican Maryland, Butler Republican Maryland 

Saltonstall Republican Massachusetts

McNamara Democrat michigan, Potter Republican Michigan 

Humphrey Democrat Minnesota, Thye Republican Minnesota 

Hennings Democrat montana, Symington Democrat Montana 

 Curtis Republican Nebraska, Hruska Republican Nebraska 

Cotton Republican New Hampshire 

Case Republican New Jersey

 Ives Republican New York, Javits Republican New York 

 Bricker Republican Ohio 

Neuburger Democrat Oregon 

 Clark Democrat Pennsylvania, Martin Republican Pennsylvania 

 Pastore Democrat Rhode Island 

Case Republican South Dakota 

Bennett Republican Utah, Watkins Republican Utah 

 Aiken Republican Vermont 

 Jackson Democrat Washington

Revercomb Republican West Virginia 

Wiley Republican Wisconsin 

Barrett Republican Wyoming
HTPP-001-001-p0010. NAACP release on the 1957 Civil Rights Act and Senators who voted against key procedural moves, including John F. Kennedy. Herbert Tucker Personal Papers, Box 1, “1958 Senatorial campaign: Campaign materials”

Tucker recalled being “very critical” of Kennedy’s votes at the time, but “cautiously accepted” the Senator’s rules-based explanation of his votes. When he joined the 1958 campaign, Tucker focused on bringing the Senator to Black spaces (including the famed Freedom House in Roxbury) and leveraging his own connections to boost support for Kennedy among his influential friends and colleagues. Tucker formed and led the Massachusetts Citizens’ Committee for Minority Rights, and his personal invitation to help plan one of the group’s campaign events went out to some of Boston’s best-known Black citizens, including:

  • Royal Bolling, who would become a state Representative and sponsor the legislation that led to Boston’s school desegregation;
  • Dexter Eure, pioneering Boston Globe journalist; 
  • Lincoln Pope, the first Black Democrat elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives; 
  • Paul Parks, a civil engineer who would be the state’s first Black Secretary of Education;
  • Frank W. Morris, an artist and the first Black director of any Massachusetts state agency; 
  • Silas “Shag” Taylor and Balcom “Bal” Taylor, brothers who owned both the Lincoln Pharmacy and the Pioneer Club, a famed Boston jazz club that doubled as a meeting place for local Black leaders;
  • Edward O. Gourdin, an Olympic silver medalist who was both the first person in history to hit a 25-foot long jump, and the first African American and the first Native American (Seminole) Superior Court judge in any New England state.
Hon. Edward O. Goudin [sic]
80 presidents Lane Quincy Massachusetts September 5 1958

Dear Judge: 

As a member of the Kennedy for Senator campaign finance committee I have been asked to call together a small select group of outstanding men friends of Senator Kennedy - to meet at my home 93 Hutchings Street, Roxbury on Wednesday evening September 10th 1958 at 8:00 to develop plans for a dinner at which the Senator will be guest of honor, and senator Paul Douglas of Illinois will be the Principal speaker, addressing himself to the subject of civil rights.

 Teddy Kennedy and Steve smith, brother and brother-in-law respectively of the senator, will be on hand to assist us in working out the details.
 if you cannot make it, will you please call me.
 Herbert E Tucker, Jr
HTPP-001-002-p0038. Carbon copy of Herbert Tucker’s letter to Edward O. Gourdin with an invitation to a Kennedy campaign event at his home, 5 September 1958. Herbert Tucker Personal Papers, Box 2, “1958 Senatorial campaign: Correspondence”

Tucker also helped conceptualize a version of the popular “Kennedy teas” that the campaign would call the “Kennedy Tea for Negro Women,” targeting women voters in Black communities. As Chair of the Tea, Tucker helped set up a committee of roughly fifty prominent Boston-area women to serve as hostesses, coordinate logistics, and send invitations to ten of their friends, who would, in turn, each invite their friends. Often including a short speech by Kennedy and a meet-and-greet reception line, campaign teas were a key strategy for quickly reaching up to thousands of voters in a given community – and for shining a spotlight on the pro-Kennedy views of the community leaders who served as hostesses.

PC-0817. Herbert E. Tucker, Jr. (right) and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy watch as John F. Kennedy greets an unidentified child and unidentified woman at a campaign event with the Massachusetts Citizens’ Committee for Minority Rights, 1958. President’s Collection Photographs.*

Kennedy won his 1958 election with 73.5% of the vote, and, as historian Mark Stern noted, “he won most of the Black wards by an even larger margin.” Just over a year later, he announced his run for the Presidency. By this time, Tucker was Assistant Attorney General for Massachusetts, and “got a call out of the clear blue sky” from campaign staff asking him to represent Kennedy at the upcoming Democratic state convention in Michigan. In his oral history, Tucker recalled:

I found out that actually I was to be exhibit one: “Here is a Negro who has known Mr. Kennedy for a number of years and can tell you just what type of individual he was.” And I can see now, as I look back, why that was so important, because as I looked around…about thirty percent of the delegates were Negroes.

Returning from his whirlwind Michigan trip in May 1960, Tucker reported back to the campaign: “I had two impressions to overcome: 1) Senator’s failure to take a forthright stand on civil rights despite his excellent voting record. 2) The nebulous association with Governor Patterson of Alabama,” a notorious segregationist who’d announced his support for Kennedy’s Presidential bid after Kennedy hosted him for breakfast at his home. To push back on these impressions, Tucker suggested that the campaign send representatives to other conferences and follow up with various Black politicians, journalists, and civic leaders.

Soon after Tucker’s report, Kennedy met with a group of delegates from the Michigan convention and sat for an interview with P.L. Prattis of the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the leading Black newspapers in the country, to discuss his views on civil rights.

From the Pittsburgh Courier on the newsstands June 22 1960

 Senator Kennedy's answers in interview by PL Prattis  editor, the Pittsburgh Courier
As soon as the formalities were completed and Senator Kennedy had settled back in his chair as is his wont, I told him that it was my desire to be completely impartial and to ask him direct questions designed 1) to show what kind of man he is, 2) to discover the exact role he is playing as a presidential candidate, and 3) to learn what his attitude is on issues which are of special concern to Negroes, North and South, whether or not they deem it prudent to make their concerns known.
“I think that is all to the good” Senator Kennedy broke in, flicking a non-existent speck of dust from his coat lapel. “The people have a right to know where their candidates stand. I know that Negroes have special problems but I wish this were not so. I wish that what is good for one American were good for all Americans, regardless of race, religion, color or whatnot. This is not true today, but this is the goal toward which we must work with dedication and speed.”

“Senator,” I pursued, “The job of being president of the United States is a hard and tough job. It is getting harder all the time. you don't need the job. You don't have to work as hard as the job requires. Why, then, are you a candidate for President?”
The senator seemed to muse but he is not the musing type, and he shot back quickly and directly: “The aim of the next President of the United States must be to lead the nation back from complacency to the hard big work of fulfilling the American promise at home and in the world. This is my aim. This is why I am in this campaign. This means achieving equal opportunity in all parts of our public life for all Americans regardless of race or color. This requires equal access to the voting booth, to the schoolroom, two jobs, to housing - and to lunch counters.”
HTPP-001-004-p0009. The first page of John F. Kennedy’s interview with Percival Leroy (P.L.) Prattis for the Pittsburgh Courier, 22 June 1960. Herbert Tucker Personal Papers, Box 1, “1960 Presidential campaign: Campaign materials”

Tucker became Assistant Director of the Civil Rights Section of Kennedy’s campaign, and along with the Division’s Director, Marjorie McKenzie Lawson, focused on winning support from Black delegates at state conventions and civil rights conferences — often by attending as representatives of the Senator. Tucker advised the campaign that “in almost every instance, delegates to any convention are vehicles through which many people of a particular locality can be reached and are usually the ones who are a great factor in formation of opinions.”

PC1662. Herbert E. Tucker, Jr. (far left) is registered by delegates to the 50th meeting of the National Urban League in New York City, September 1960: (L-R) Juliet Whitted, William H. Oliver (Representative of “Citizens for Kennedy for President”), Camille Pettus. President’s Collection Photographs, photograph by Cecil Layne.

Tucker’s records also document Tucker and Lawson’s work on developing strategies for appealing to Black delegates at the Democratic National Convention in July 1960; advising the campaign on Black organizations Kennedy should speak to; and conducting outreach in crucial states with appointed Civil Rights Section State Coordinators — typically, Black civic leaders who were hugely influential in their local communities, including politician Augustus Hawkins in California; businessmen Sonny Lawson in Colorado and Hobart Taylor in Texas; and NAACP leader Ruth Batson in Massachusetts.

As election day drew nearer, the campaign won Kennedy endorsements from key people, newspapers, and organizations, including the Trade Union Leadership Council in August and civil rights leader Roy Wilkins in early October. And on October 26, 1960, campaign staffer Harris Wofford persuaded John F. Kennedy to call Coretta Scott King after her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was arrested in Atlanta, Georgia; a second call by Robert F. Kennedy helped secure King’s release. With just two weeks to go before the election, the campaign quickly publicized the calls with press releases and pamphlets targeted to Black communities, and Tucker noted that Wofford “probably gave [Kennedy] the most vital piece of good advice during the campaign when he had him call Martin Luther King.”

American Justice on Trial
Mrs. Martin Luther King: It certainly made me feel good that he called me personally and let me know how he felt. Senator Kennedy said he was very much concerned about both of us. He said this must be hard on me. He wanted me to know he was thinking about us and he would do all he could to help. I told him I appreciated it and hoped he would help. I had the feeling that if he was that much concerned he would do what he could so that Mr. King would be let out of jail. I have heard nothing from the Vice President or anyone on his staff. Mr. Nixon has been very quiet.
Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr.: I had expected to vote against Senator Kennedy because of his religion. But now he can be my President, Catholic or whatever he is. It took courage to call my daughter in law at a time like this. He has the moral courage to stand up for what he knows is right. He has shown his sympathy and concern and his respect for the Constitutional rights of all Americans. I’ve got all my votes and I’ve got a suitcase and I’m going to take them up there and dump them in his lap.
Rev. Ralph Abernathy, President, Montgomery Improvement Association; Secretary-Treasurer, Southern Christian Leadership Conference: I earnestly and sincerely feel that it is time for all of us to take off our Nixon buttons. I wish to make it crystal clear that I am not hog-tied to any party. My first concern is for the 350-year old struggle of our people. Now I have made up my mind to vote for Senator Kennedy because I am convinced he is concerned about our struggle. Senator Kennedy did something wonderful when he personally called Mrs. Coretta King and helped free Dr. Martin Luther King. This was the kind of act I was waiting for. It was not just Dr. King on trial - America was on trial. Mr. Nixon could have helped, but he took no step in this direction. It is my understanding that he refused even to comment on the case. I learned a long time ago that one kindness deserves another. Since Mr. Nixon has been silent through all this, I am going to return his silence when I go into the voting booth. Senator Kennedy showed his great concern for humanity when he acted first without counting the cost. He risked his political welfare in the South. We must offset whatever loss he may sustain. He has my wholehearted support because [end of page]
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: I am deeply indebted to Senator Kennedy who served as a great force in making my release possible. It took a lot of courage for Senator Kennedy to do this, especially in Georgia. For him to be that courageous shows that he is really acting upon principle and not expediency. He did it because of his great concern and his humanitarian bent. I hold Senator Kennedy in very high esteem. I am Convinced he will seek to exercise the power of his office to fully implement the civil rights plank of his party’s platform. I never intend to be a religious bigot. I never intend to reject a man running for President of the United States just because he is a Catholic. Religious bigotry is as immoral, un-democratic, un-American and un-Christian as racial bigotry.
JFKWHSFHW-002-012-p0016. The “Blue Bomb” pamphlet publicizing John F. Kennedy’s call to Coretta Scott King in October 1960, and the King family’s support for Kennedy’s campaign. White House Staff Files of Harris Wofford, Box 2, “Civil Rights: Miscellaneous, 1960-January 1961.”

That November, Kennedy won the 1960 Presidential election with 68% of Black voters’ support — an improvement on the 1956 Democratic ticket’s showing of 61%, but still lower than 1952 levels, when 79% of Black voters had turned out for the Democrat. While some campaign veterans and historians have attributed Kennedy’s winning 1960 margins with Black voters primarily to his last-minute call to Coretta Scott King, others disagree. Historian James Meriwether argues that “the focus on the phone calls marginalizes Kennedy’s efforts throughout the campaign to use other appeals…to secure the black vote without alienating the white southern vote,” and that the emphasis on the calls “has obscured those campaign efforts and reduced the complexity of African American voting to an oversimplified equation: Kennedy called about King, so he won the black vote.”

Marjorie McKenzie Lawson made similar statements as far back as 1965, in her oral history interview for the JFK Library. Lawson, who had recently become the first Black woman judge in the District of Columbia, argued that her and her staff’s work with Black leaders and organizations was already being erased by the narrative crediting Black vote tallies to the King phone calls:

Were we to say that Negroes were so childlike and so unsophisticated that they cared nothing for the organizational work that had been done and the recognition that they had received but had responded to one telephone call and had rushed then to the polls and voted for Senator Kennedy? I thought it was ridiculous; it was a great disservice to the people who had worked so hard in the campaign both nationally and locally. All of these interpretations…did a lot of harm to the sophistication and maturity of Negro organizations or those interracial political organizations which we had been able to develop in many communities and states.

PC1663. Delegates to the 50th Meeting of the National Urban League in New York City gather near a “Kennedy for President” campaign poster, September 1960. Seated, L-R: Douglas Pugh, Barbara Butler, Kenneth Murphy, Lucy Williams, William H. Oliver (Representative for “Citizens for Kennedy for President”). Standing, L-R: Everett O’Neal, Mazzilee Jackson. President’s Collection Photographs, photograph by Cecil Layne.

Lawson’s statement highlights the critical role of archival collections like Herbert Tucker’s, which document the work of people who influenced the course of history, but aren’t always included in its retelling. At the JFK Library, we’re privileged to care for these materials and make them freely and widely available. You can browse the Herbert Tucker Personal Papers and read through oral histories from Tucker, Lawson, and other Black workers in and around JFK’s campaigns at the links below:


* Many of the people photographed at campaign events, especially in Black communities and other communities of color, remain unidentified or partially-identified in our collections. Archivists are actively working on identifying these individuals so that their presence is known in the historical record. If you recognize any unidentified people in these photographs, please reach out to us at

** The JFK Library’s archival collections on minoritized communities, including Black communities, often contain racist, derogatory, and/or outdated language to refer to these communities; some links in this post lead to archival materials that may contain such language. The original items and language are preserved to facilitate access to the full historical record; see our note on the work we’re doing to alert users to such materials.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *