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An Ugly Situation in Birmingham, 1963

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At a May 1963 press conference, President John F. Kennedy makes a statement and answers questions about the violence in Birmingham.


THE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon. I am gratified to note the progress in the efforts by white and Negro citizens to end an ugly situation in Birmingham, Alabama. I have made it clear since assuming the Presidency that I would use all available means to protect human rights, and uphold the law of the land. Through mediation and persuasion and, where that effort has failed, through lawsuits and court actions, we have attempted to meet our responsibilities in this most difficult field where Federal court orders have been circumvented, ignored, or violated. We have committed all of the power of the Federal Government to insure respect and obedience of court decisions, and the law of the land.

In the City of Birmingham, the Department of Justice some time ago instituted an investigation into voting discrimination. It supported in the Supreme Court an attack on the city's segregation ordinances. We have, in addition, been watching the present controversy, to detect any violation of the Federal civil rights or other statutes. In the absence of such violation or any other Federal jurisdiction, our efforts have been focused on getting both sides together to settle in a peaceful fashion the very real abuses too long inflicted on the Negro citizens of that community.

Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall, representing the Attorney General and myself on the scene, has made every possible effort to halt a spectacle which was seriously damaging the reputation of both Birmingham and the country.

Today, as the result of responsible efforts on the part of both white and Negro leaders over the last 72 hours, the business community of Birmingham has responded in a constructive and commendable fashion and pledged that substantial steps would begin to meet the justifiable needs of the Negro community.

Negro leaders have announced suspension of their demonstrations, and when the newly elected Mayor who has indicated his desire to resolve these problems takes office, the City of Birmingham has committed itself wholeheartedly to continuing progress in this area.

While much remains to be settled before the situation can be termed satisfactory, we can hope that tensions will ease and that this case history which has so far only narrowly avoided widespread violence and fatalities will remind every State, every community, and every citizen how urgent it is that all bars to equal opportunity and treatment be removed as promptly as possible.

I urge the local leaders of Birmingham, both white and Negro, to continue their constructive and cooperative efforts.

QUESTION: Mr. President, against the background or possibility of similar trouble developing in other Southern towns, I wonder if you could tell us how you regard the techniques that were used over the last few days in Birmingham by either side, dogs and fire hoses used by one side, and the use of school children and protest marchers by the other side?

THE PRESIDENT: I think what we are interested in now is seeing the situation peacefully settled in the next 12, 24 hours. I think all of our statements should be devoted to that end. Quite obviously, as my remarks indicated, the situation in Birmingham was damaging the reputation of Birmingham and the United States. It seems to me that the best way to prevent that kind of damage, which is very serious, is to, in time, take steps to provide equal treatment to all of our citizens. That is the best remedy in this case and other cases.

QUESTION: Mr. President, do you see any hope of Birmingham serving as a model for a solution in other communities facing similar problems?

THE PRESIDENT: We will have to see what happens in Birmingham over the next few days...

QUESTION: Mr. President, in the Alabama crisis at Birmingham, according to your interpretation of the powers of the Presidency, was there power that you possessed either by statute or the Constitution that you chose not to invoke or did you use your powers in your view to the fullest in this controversy?

THE PRESIDENT: There isn't any Federal statute that was involved in the last few days in Birmingham, Alabama. I indicated the areas where the Federal Government had intervened in Birmingham, the matter of voting, the matter of dealing with education, and other matters. On the specific question of the parades, that did not involve a Federal statute...

...THE PRESIDENT: As I indicated in my answer, and that is the reason why Mr. Marshall is proceeding the way he has, we have not had, for example, a legal suit as we have had in some other cases where there was a Federal statute involved...

QUESTION: On the matter of improving race relations in the United States, do you think that a fireside chat on civil rights would serve a constructive purpose?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, it might. If I thought it would, I would give one. We have attempted to use all -- what happens is we move situation by situation. Quite obviously all these situations carry with them dangers. We have not got a settlement yet in Birmingham. I attempted to make clear my strong view that there is an important moral issue involved of equality for all of our citizens. And until you give it to them you are going to have difficulties as we have had this week in Birmingham. The time to give it to them is before the disasters come and not afterwards. But I made a speech the night of Mississippi at Oxford to the citizens of Mississippi and others that did not seem to do much good. But this doesn't mean we should not keep on trying.

QUESTION: May I ask you a question on your statement on Birmingham? I believe you said that the results of the efforts by Mr. Marshall have been that the business community has pledged that substantial steps will begin to meet the needs of the Negro community. Could you expand that? What kind of substantial steps?

THE PRESIDENT: No, I said as the result of responsible efforts on the part of both white and Negro leaders over the last 72 hours, the business community of Birmingham, and so on. So it is their efforts, and not the Federal Government's efforts. I would think it would be much better to permit the community of Birmingham to proceed now in the next 24 hours to see if we can get some -- and not from here....

Source: President Kennedy's press conference #55, May 8, 1963. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston, Massachusetts.

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