John Kennedy was elected president in 1960 partly because of his promise to secure equal rights for black Americans. Yet, once in office, he and his brother Robert, the attorney general, sought to avoid too great an involvement in the politically divisive struggle. Violent Southern conflict about black civil rights overtook the Kennedys, forcing them to intervene on the side of the integrationists. Still, President Kennedy resisted sending strong civil rights legislation to Congress, unwilling to risk further alienating the powerful Southern conservatives blocking his domestic program.
A Rising Movement
The African American movement for equal rights had been building for years. The Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 that segregated educational facilities were inherently unequal. An African American teenager from Chicago, Emmett Till, was brutally murdered in Mississippi in summer 1955. When his mother decided to keep her son’s casket open, to show what had been done to him, many people who had stayed on the sidelines were moved to join the struggle for justice. A few months later, an African American seamstress, Rosa Parks, sat in the front of a bus, refusing to move to the back, where blacks were expected to sit. Her arrest motivated a boycott of Montgomery, Alabama buses led by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
Even as supporters of equal rights increased their activism, the opposition grew. White supremacist Citizens’ Councils sprung up in Mississippi following the Brown decision. In 1956 a mob nearly lynched Autherine Lucy, a black woman who tried to register as a student at the University of Alabama. George Wallace, an ambitious Alabama politician, lost his bid for governor in 1958 after receiving the endorsement of the NAACP. His victorious opponent had been endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. Wallace took away the lesson that he needed to take a stronger position against integration; his hardened attitude would help him claim victory in 1962.
The 1960 Election
By the time John Kennedy and Richard Nixon met to debate in the 1960 presidential campaign, the civil rights issue could not be ignored. Both candidates sympathized with the plight of African Americans, but failed to provide solutions to the problem. During the campaign, Martin Luther King Jr.was arrested in Atlanta for a sit-in and sentenced to four months hard labor. His friends worried that he would be lynched while in prison. Kennedy called Mrs. King directly and offered his sympathy; meanwhile, his brother Bobby called the judge in Georgia and King was released on bail a few days later. This incident drew little mainstream press, but the African American community was well aware of it. Martin Luther King Sr., who had endorsed Nixon earlier, switched allegiances. “This man was willing to wipe the tears from my daughter[-in-law]'s eyes,” he said. “I’ve got a suitcase of votes, and I’m going to take them to Mr. Kennedy.” The black vote was pivotal in the swing states of Illinois, Michigan and South Carolina that Kennedy carried.
The African American vote may have been pivotal in getting Kennedy into office but once he was there he was reluctant to get involved in the divisive issue of civil rights. He and his brother Robert were drawn into the struggle when thirteen black and white members of the Congress of Racial Equality boarded a bus in Washington, D.C., and headed to New Orleans to protest segregation of interstate transportation. When these Freedom Riders were stopped by violence in Birmingham, Alabama, Robert Kennedy intervened to get the Riders back on their way. When mobs of angry whites attacked the Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Alabama, Robert Kennedy sent in federal marshals.
Having It Both Ways
Forced to react on the side of civil rights, the Kennedy brothers still did not seem committed to the issue. “The Kennedys wanted [it] both ways. They wanted to appear to be our friends and they wanted to be the brake on our movement,” said civil rights activist Roger Wilkins. But John Kennedy saw himself as having done more than any other president for African Americans. Historian Robert Dallek wrote, “he had gone beyond other presidents, but it was not enough to keep up with the determined efforts of African Americans to end two centuries of oppression.” Still, the Freedom Riders conflict had its impact. Robert Kennedy later said, “I never recovered from it.” For the rest of his life, he would remain a champion of civil rights.
The Early Sixties
Racial tensions continued to build. In 1962 President Kennedy sent hundreds of U.S. marshals to enforce a court order to admit African American James Meredith to the University of Mississippi. The marshals encountered fierce resistance from violent segregationists. In a melee, two people were killed and dozens injured. In February 1963 Kennedy submitted a civil rights bill to Congress that did not address the important issue of integration of public facilities. He did little to support the bill and it floundered. When racial violence erupted in Birmingham, Alabama, in May 1963, John Kennedy realized it was time to put forward a broad new civil rights bill. Most of his advisers told him it would be a terrible political mistake. But Robert advised him that the future of the country was at stake and urged him to go ahead with the bill.
A Landmark Speech
On June 11, 1963, the day that Governor George Wallace made his “stand in the school room door” to prevent two black students from attending the University of Alabama, President Kennedy spoke to the nation in a televised address to ask for support of the civil rights bill. He said, “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities.”
For some, Kennedy’s speech was a long-awaited show of support. “All of a sudden, he brought passion to it, he brought that eloquence to it and it electrified me and all kinds of other black people,” Roger Wilkins remembered. Fellow civil rights activist John Lewis said, “that night in June… he spoke, I think, to the heart and to the soul of America. I would never forget that speech.” For others, the speech was intolerable. Later that night, a reply came from those who opposed civil rights. Segregationist Byron de la Beckwith shot and killed Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s field secretary in Mississippi.
Within weeks, Kennedy presented to Congress the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. In September 1963, asked to comment on a Gallup poll reporting that fifty percent of the nation thought he was pushing too fast on integration, Kennedy said, “This is not a matter on which you can take the temperature every week or two… you must make a judgment about the movement of a great historical event which is taking place in this country… Change always disturbs.” Just two months later, John Kennedy was assassinated. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, pushed the bill through Congress and signed it into law in 1964.
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