John F. Kennedy

U.S. Federal Government Brookline, MA

President John F. Kennedy had campaigned in part on a moderately pro-civil rights platform, but in the spring of 1961, his first priority was Cold War politics. Kennedy wanted to avoid embarrassing headlines in the weeks leading up to his June summit meeting in Vienna with Soviet premier Nikita Kruschev.

"Can't you get your Goddamned friends off those buses?" Kennedy complained to Harris Wofford, a Justice Department official close to the Civil Rights Movement. "Stop them."

Even as Alabama Governor John Patterson dodged Kennedy's phone calls, the President and other administration officials worked to guarantee the physical safety of Freedom Riders, deploying U.S. Marshals to protect the Riders during the May 21 siege and firebombing of the Montgomery, AL First Baptist Church and mobilizing the National Guard. His administration permitted the Freedom Riders to be imprisoned in Mississippi on flimsy breach-of-peace charges, but also put pressure on the Interstate Commerce Commission to remove Jim Crow signs and end segregation of interstate bus travel facilities.

The events of the Freedom Rides paved the way for the administration to align itself more decisively in support of Civil Rights. Kennedy sent federal troops to the University of Mississippi in 1962 and the University of Alabama in 1963, to protect black students attempting to enroll. On June 11, 1963, Kennedy gave a speech calling upon Congress to pass a comprehensive Civil Rights bill, stressing that Americans were "confronted primarily with a moral issue, not a legislative or political one."

The resulting legislation would be passed as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963.

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