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.
General Article: The Kennedys and Civil Rights
PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY'S TELEVISED SPEECH ON BEHALF OF CIVIL RIGHTS JUNE 11, 1963:
Good evening, my fellow citizens:
This afternoon, following a series of threats and defiant statements, the presence of Alabama National Guardsmen was required on the University of Alabama to carry out the final and unequivocal order of the United States District Court of the Northern District of Alabama. That order called for the admission of two clearly qualified young Alabama residents who happened to have been born Negro. That they were admitted peacefully on the campus is due in good measure to the conduct of the students of the University of Alabama, who met their responsibilities in a constructive way.
I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents. This Nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.
Today, we are committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free. And when Americans are sent to Vietnam or West Berlin, we do not ask for whites only. It ought to be possible, therefore, for American students of any color to attend any public institution they select without having to be backed up by troops. It ought to to be possible for American consumers of any color to receive equal service in places of public accommodation, such as hotels and restaurants and theaters and retail stores, without being forced to resort to demonstrations in the street, and it ought to be possible for American citizens of any color to register and to vote in a free election without interference or fear of reprisal. It ought to to be possible, in short, for every American to enjoy the privileges of being American without regard to his race or his color. In short, every American ought to have the right to be treated as he would wish to be treated, as one would wish his children to be treated. But this is not the case.
The Negro baby born in America today, regardless of the section of the State in which he is born, has about one-half as much chance of completing a high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day, one-third as much chance of completing college, one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man, twice as much chance of becoming unemployed, about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year, a life expectancy which is 7 years shorter, and the prospects of earning only half as much.
This is not a sectional issue. Difficulties over segregation and discrimination exist in every city, in every State of the Union, producing in many cities a rising tide of discontent that threatens the public safety. Nor is this a partisan issue. In a time of domestic crisis men of good will and generosity should be able to unite regardless of party or politics. This is not even a legal or legislative issue alone. It is better to settle these matters in the courts than on the streets, and new laws are needed at every level, but law alone cannot make men see right. 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, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?
One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.
We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes?
Now the time has come for this Nation to fulfill its promise. The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or State or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them. The fires of frustration and discord are burning in every city, North and South, where legal remedies are not at hand. Redress is sought in the streets, in demonstrations, parades, and protests which create tensions and threaten violence and threaten lives.
We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and a people. It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is a time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives. It is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say this a problem of one section of the country or another, or deplore the facts that we face. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all. Those who do nothing are inviting shame, as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right, as well as reality.
Next week I shall ask the Congress of the United States to act, to make a commitment it has not fully made in this century to the proposition that race has no place in American life or law. The Federal judiciary has upheld that proposition in a series of forthright cases. The Executive Branch has adopted that proposition in the conduct of its affairs, including the employment of Federal personnel, the use of Federal facilities, and the sale of federally financed housing. But there are other necessary measures which only the Congress can provide, and they must be provided at this session. The old code of equity law under which we live commands for every wrong a remedy, but in too many communities, in too many parts of the country, wrongs are inflicted on Negro citizens and there are no remedies at law. Unless the Congress acts, their only remedy is the street.
I am, therefore, asking the Congress to enact legislation giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public -- hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments. This seems to me to be an elementary right. Its denial is an arbitrary indignity that no American in 1963 should have to endure, but many do.
I have recently met with scores of business leaders urging them to take voluntary action to end this discrimination, and I have been encouraged by their response, and in the last two weeks over 75 cities have seen progress made in desegregating these kinds of facilities. But many are unwilling to act alone, and for this reason, nationwide legislation is needed if we are to move this problem from the streets to the courts.
I'm also asking the Congress to authorize the Federal Government to participate more fully in lawsuits designed to end segregation in public education. We have succeeded in persuading many districts to desegregate voluntarily. Dozens have admitted Negroes without violence. Today, a Negro is attending a State-supported institution in every one of our 50 States, but the pace is very slow.
Too many Negro children entering segregated grade schools at the time of the Supreme Court's decision nine years ago will enter segregated high schools this fall, having suffered a loss which can never be restored. The lack of an adequate education denies the Negro a chance to get a decent job.
The orderly implementation of the Supreme Court decision, therefore, cannot be left solely to those who may not have the economic resources to carry the legal action or who may be subject to harassment.
Other features will be also requested, including greater protection for the right to vote. But legislation, I repeat, cannot solve this problem alone. It must be solved in the homes of every American in every community across our country. In this respect I wanna pay tribute to those citizens North and South who've been working in their communities to make life better for all. They are acting not out of sense of legal duty but out of a sense of human decency. Like our soldiers and sailors in all parts of the world they are meeting freedom's challenge on the firing line, and I salute them for their honor and their courage.
My fellow Americans, this is a problem which faces us all -- in every city of the North as well as the South. Today, there are Negroes unemployed, two or three times as many compared to whites, inadequate education, moving into the large cities, unable to find work, young people particularly out of work without hope, denied equal rights, denied the opportunity to eat at a restaurant or a lunch counter or go to a movie theater, denied the right to a decent education, denied almost today the right to attend a State university even though qualified. It seems to me that these are matters which concern us all, not merely Presidents or Congressmen or Governors, but every citizen of the United States.
This is one country. It has become one country because all of us and all the people who came here had an equal chance to develop their talents. We cannot say to ten percent of the population that you can't have that right; that your children cannot have the chance to develop whatever talents they have; that the only way that they are going to get their rights is to go in the street and demonstrate. I think we owe them and we owe ourselves a better country than that.
Therefore, I'm asking for your help in making it easier for us to move ahead and to provide the kind of equality of treatment which we would want ourselves; to give a chance for every child to be educated to the limit of his talents.
As I've said before, not every child has an equal talent or an equal ability or equal motivation, but they should have the equal right to develop their talent and their ability and their motivation, to make something of themselves.
We have a right to expect that the Negro community will be responsible, will uphold the law, but they have a right to expect that the law will be fair, that the Constitution will be color blind, as Justice Harlan said at the turn of the century.
This is what we're talking about and this is a matter which concerns this country and what it stands for, and in meeting it I ask the support of all our citizens.
Thank you very much.
The Day President Kennedy Embraced Civil Rights—and the Story Behind It
by JONATHAN RIEDER
JUNE 11, 2013
"Can you believe that white man not only stepped up to the plate, he hit it over the fence!" That was Martin Luther King, Jr.'s private verdict on President John F. Kennedy's famous Civil Rights Address, delivered fifty years ago on June 11, 1963.
If King's elation made sense, so did his incredulity. Kennedy had hardly been a beacon of moral resolve on civil rights. It required the Birmingham civil rights movement -- and the tough-minded theory of social change that King spelled out in the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" -- to provoke his speech into being. And once pushed into taking a stand with the address, Kennedy and his speechwriter Theodore Sorensen filled it with rhetoric often remarkably similar to King's. Though the address came, ostensibly, in response to a different event -- the fight over the integration at the University of Alabama -- it was full of echoes of "Letter from Birmingham Jail." In a powerful sense, King and the movement were the authors of the president's oratory.
The speech was a dramatic moment in a season jammed with dramatic events, as America staggered toward non-racial democracy. In his fiery inaugural speech in January of 1963, the new governor of Alabama, George Wallace had pledged, "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." In defiance of Wallace, King and the local movement launched civil rights protests in April in the furiously racist city of Birmingham. With the movement faltering, King decided to violate an injunction banning protests of any sort, and was, as a result, jailed on Good Friday, April 12.
Kennedy's speech constituted an about-face, and King grasped that the Birmingham campaign had instigated it
While in jail, King read a statement by eight of the leading moderate white clergy in Alabama, condemning the protests and branding King an extremist. The indignant, frazzled leader poured his rejoinder onto newspaper margins and toilet tissue. The iconic document that emerged from those jottings, the "Letter from Birmingham Jail," was always more than a spirited defense of civil disobedience. It was an indictment of white indifference. "Few members of the oppressor race," King insisted, "can understand the ... passionate yearnings of the oppressed race." It was also a declaration of black self-sufficiency ("If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail.") and a stirring refusal of patience. "The word 'Wait!'" wrote King, "rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity." The "Letter" was radical in the scope of its rebuke. King's key targets were not the Klan and Wallace but the very core of American culture, every sort of moderate "who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom."
Neither King's sacrificial act nor his roiling anger was enough to jumpstart the movement, even after he got out of jail on April 20. But in early May, the city's black youth renewed the insurgency. After singing rousing verses of "I Woke Up With My Mind Stayed on Freedom," they burst through the doors of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and faced down Bull Connor's dogs and fire hoses. Within days, an agreement was forged to desegregate the city. The nation had begun its lurch toward the March on Washington, King's "I Have a Dream" speech, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Meanwhile, the federal court-ordered integration of the University of Alabama loomed on June 11. Governor Wallace vowed to stand in the schoolhouse door to block the mixing of races. Kennedy's speech, the one that so impressed and surprised King, came just hours after forcing Wallace to step aside. "We are confronted primarily with a moral issue," he declared. "It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution." The president was finally using language the demonstrators could appreciate: "We preach freedom around the world," he said, "but are we to say to the world, and . . .to each other that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes ...?"
Throughout the speech Kennedy seemed to be channeling the "Letter from Birmingham Jail." King had invited white people to put themselves in a black person's shoes: "When you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will," or " when your first name becomes 'nigger,' your middle name becomes 'boy,' ... then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait." Kennedy, too, used the place-trading device: "If a Negro can't enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?"
The president's address also resembled King's "Letter" in rejecting the idea that blacks should have to wait for equality. "Who among us," Kennedy demanded, "would then be content with counsels of patience and delay?" He mimicked King's critique of "appalling silence": "Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence." The president even picked up the mass meeting chant -- "Now is the time!" Said Kennedy, "Now the time has come for this Nation to fulfill its promise."
Despite that drumbeat of immediacy, Kennedy's call to conscience was belated as well as brave. The president had long epitomized the moderates whom King had blasted in the "Letter" as the true "stumbling block" to justice. In his inaugural address, Kennedy promised to "pay any price" to spread freedom around the globe but he hadn't been willing to do that for black people in the United States. Kennedy, the ever risk-averse pragmatist, kept telling King to "wait" -- exactly the reaction King deplored in the "Letter." When Attorney General Robert Kennedy, afraid that a black child might be maimed in the protests, called King to get him to call off the insurgency of the young, King retorted, "[Black children] are hurt every day."
So Kennedy's speech constituted an about-face, and King grasped that the Birmingham campaign had instigated it. In the May 10 mass meeting at which the victory in Birmingham was announced, a jubilant, downhome King recounted,
Those business and professional leaders were sayin', "We're tired of these niggers, and there's nothing to do but tell the government to send the National Guard here and get this thing under martial law. . . . These niggers are just not gonna stop."
And when they got out for lunch, and saw all those Negroes standing on the sidewalk singing "We shall overcome" and they "Won't let nobody turn me round," I heard that when they got back in there after the lunch hour, they started sayin', "Now, let's see, I think we could grant part one," and they moved down to part two and extended that.*
King had no doubt that the protests were working the same magic on the president and nudging him toward a more energetic stance on civil rights. "When things started happening down here, Mr. Kennedy got disturbed . . . He is battling for the minds and the hearts of men in Asia and Africa. . . And they're not gonna respect the United States of America if she deprives men and women of the basic rights of life because of the color of their skin. Mr. Kennedy knows this." On May 3, a photographer captured the iconic image of a German Shepherd that seemed to be lunging to bite a young black boy. "And when that picture went all over Asia and Africa and England and France, Mr. Kennedy said, 'Bobby, you better get your assistant down there and look into this matter. It's a dangerous situation for our image abroad.'"
The truth went further than King imagined, though. The picture had in fact aroused something in Kennedy beyond concerns about America's image. At a private but recorded White House meeting on May 4, he said the picture "made him sick." Kennedy sounds befuddled: he decries the black situation in Birmingham as "intolerable"; he exudes frustration ("what law can you pass to do anything about [local] police power"); he concedes "we have done not enough [on civil rights]"; yet he careens, "but we have shoved and pushed . . . and there's nothing my brother's given more time to."
"If I were a Negro, I would be awfully sore," the president acknowledged. And then, as if responding to King's argument in the "Letter" that when whites said "wait" they really meant "never," Kennedy added: "I'm not saying anybody ought to be patient."
In the end, Kennedy's turn-about vindicated the key premise of the "Letter from Birmingham Jail": Blacks could not bank on moral appeal or empathy alone, let alone some intrinsic force of "American exceptionalism," to awaken the conscience of whites. The unruliness of "creative tension" was required to galvanize the state to act on behalf of the suffering. As the president put it on June 4, "And this may be the only way these things come to a head. We're going to end up with the National Guard in there and all sorts of trouble."
"All sorts of trouble" underscores an ironic, unsettling truth: the white fear of violence pushed events forward too. In his June 11 address, President Kennedy observed, "The fires of frustration and discord are burning in every city, North and South ... Redress is sought in the streets. . .which create[s] tensions and threaten[s] violence." Surely, that specter of mayhem ran counter to King's faith in nonviolence. And yet its power to transfix a president confirmed the "Letter's" recognition: "Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed." Fifty years ago today, as the president delivered his address, Martin Luther King, Jr., celebrated a victory wrought by that hardboiled truth.
*The recording of Martin Luther King Jr.'s remarks on May 10, celebrating the victory in Birmingham, is posted here courtesy of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The recording was made by Reverend C. Herbert Oliver.
Reverend C. Herbert Oliver was a pioneering activist for racial justice in Birmingham beginning in the 1940s. He was one of the founders of the Inter-Citizens Committee, which gathered affidavits to document racist violence and police brutality. He was preparing to testify before the United States Commission on Civil Rights at hearings scheduled for late April 1963, which were cancelled when the SCLC-ACMHR campaign was launched.
President John F. Kennedy's relationship with civil rights was far from simple. Host Michel Martin speaks with one of the last living leaders of the civil rights movement, Georgia Representative John Lewis, about his own relationship with President Kennedy. Stanford historian Clayborne Carson also joins the conversation.
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Fifty years ago this week, President John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas. It was one of those moments in history where, if you were old enough, you'd remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when you found out. If you've been paying attention to the media at all this week, then you've no doubt run across one or another retrospective.
We've decided, in this week of reflection, to try to understand more about the president's relationship with the civil rights movement. So we're going to turn now to Georgia congressman, John Lewis. He was the chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. You might remember a conversation we had with him just a few months ago when we asked him to remember what it was like to have been the youngest speaker at the March on Washington in the summer of 1963. And the speakers were received at the White House later that day and he told us about it. Congressman Lewis, thank you so much for joining us once again.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS: Well, thank you very much. I'm delighted and pleased to join you.
MARTIN: Now when we last spoke with you, we talked about how you met President Kennedy in the summer of 1963 after the March on Washington. But before that, he gave this speech to the American people. I just want to play a short clip of it. And I'm sure you remember it. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)
PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: Deep in America, because your skin is dark, you cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public. If he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want than - then who among us can be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?
MARTIN: So there's that, but there's also the fact that, you know, you reminded us that he was very skeptical of the March on Washington in 1963, and, in fact, was very much kind of hoping that it wouldn't happen. At least that's what the record sort of shows. So which of those images that we have of him do you think are closer to the truth? I mean, on the one hand, people see him as being a very exciting figure who advanced civil rights. Other people say he was very slow to the party, very slow to respond and could have done more. Which of those things is closer to the truth in your view?
LEWIS: I think the speech that President Kennedy made was forceful. He was the first president to say that the question of civil rights was a moral issue. He reminded us what it was like to be black or white in the American South, in that speech. I listened to every word of that speech. And later, I kept seeing him being concerned about whether he was going to have to run a campaign. And I think - I reflect on this sometimes - whether he was going to have to face Senator Goldwater the next year in 1964.
So he was very careful and very concerned, even when we met with him in June of 1963 and spoke at the March on Washington. He didn't like the idea of a march on Washington. He kept saying if you bring all these people to Washington won't there be violence and chaos and disorder - and we would never get a civil rights bill through the Congress? But after the March on Washington, that same day after the march was all over, he met with us. And he was just amazing. He was smiling. He was like a proud father. He kept saying, you did a good job, you did a good job. And when he got to Dr. King, he said and you had a dream. That was my last time seeing the president.
MARTIN: Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when the president was killed?
LEWIS: On November the 22, 1963, I was in Nashville, Tennessee, leaving Fisk University campus, riding in a car on the way to the airport to go to make a speech. And I heard on the radio that the president had been assassinated. I cried. We stopped the car. We listened to the report. And it was so sad. I saw President Kennedy as our hope because I believe with his brother Bobby Kennedy, he became convinced that he had to go all out and fight for civil rights, and put an end to the system of segregation and racial discrimination.
MARTIN: Do you remember thinking that the progress would stop after he died? Or did you feel - I mean, obviously it was such a shock, but do you remember when you had a chance to gather yourself and think about what it would mean, what did you think it would mean for the movement?
LEWIS: After President Kennedy was assassinated I kept thinking, and I believe for a period of time, that we had lost a friend. We had lost someone that was on our side. But a few days later, President Lyndon Johnson reassured us that we had a friend and a supporter in him. And that he told those of us that made up the so-called Big Six of the Civil Rights Movement that he would get the Civil Rights Act passed almost as a living memorial to President Kennedy. And he did it.
MARTIN: What would you like us to think about when we think about John F. Kennedy? I mean, this is a week when many people are kind of recalling their own personal memories and, you know, their documentaries and there have been and they're still revisiting, you know, all of the kind of details of his life. It's interesting, too, that this is - you know, his daughter has now presented her credentials to become ambassador to Japan and she has just started her post, it's interesting - the timing. What would you want us to think about when we think about him and his legacy?
LEWIS: We should think that this man, this one man, inspired an unbelievable new generation. But it was not just the young people, it was not just college students, not just those of us involved in the Civil Rights Movement. But he inspired young people, young men and women to give up the comfort of American life and go to work in unbelievable places in Central and South America, to go to Africa, to go to Asia as members of the Peace Corps.
And many people that volunteered to go into Peace Corps - my wife was inspired by President Kennedy to become a volunteer in Nigeria for two years - And many of the young journalists and teachers and scholars and elected officials that's served in places today, including foundation executives. They were inspired by President Kennedy to teach, to try to give something back, not just to our own country, but back to the world community. He must be looked upon as one who changed and inspired America forever. And also, I believed then and I believe now, that when President Kennedy was assassinated, when he died, something died in all of us.
MARTIN: That was Congressman John Lewis. He represents Georgia's 5th Congressional District and he was kind enough to take time out of his very busy schedule to join us from his office on Capitol Hill. Congressman Lewis, thank you so much for speaking with us to share these reflections.
LEWIS: Thank you very much.
MARTIN: For more perspective on President Kennedy's legacy and civil rights we turn now to the noted historian and Martin Luther King biographer, Clayborne Carson. Professor Carson, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.
CLAYBORNE CARSON: Good to talk to you.
MARTIN: We just heard from Congressman John Lewis who said he felt that with the death of President Kennedy, the movement lost an important ally. But I'd like to ask you the same question I asked him, which is to go back before that. Before that, what did the civil rights leadership think of President Kennedy in that area?
CARSON: Well, I think the way Martin Luther King put it was that there were two John Kennedys. One he saw as vacillating during the first two years of his presidency. He had wanted him to introduce civil rights legislation. Kennedy was reluctant to do that and, in fact, refused to do that. Then he wanted him to at least try to achieve change through executive action and presidential orders. And I think John Kennedy wanted to do that. He talked during the campaign about - with the stroke of a pen he could eliminate discrimination in housing. And people started sending him pens because they didn't see the action once he became president.
So I think until that speech that Representative Lewis talked about in June of 1963, when he talked of civil rights as a moral issue - and that was a surprise. In fact, it was a surprise to some of the people in his own administration when he gave that speech.
MARTIN: Can I jump in for a minute? I just want to play a little bit more of it. And I am interested in what led him to make that speech, given that, just as you said, it was a surprise to some in his administration. Let me play a little bit more of it. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)
KENNEDY: We preach freedom around the world and we mean it. And we cherish our freedom here at home. But are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other, that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes, that we have no second-class citizens, except Negroes, that we have no class or caste system, no ghettos, no master race except with respect to Negroes?
MARTIN: So what led him to give that speech?
CARSON: Well, first of all, he felt challenged by Governor George Wallace in Alabama who was refusing to obey federal court orders about the desegregation of the University of Alabama. And this - coming after the Birmingham campaign, I think President Kennedy realized that there was this kind of resistance in the South that he wasn't going to be able to just mollify. He had to really, at some point, stand up for what he - I think in his heart he accepted the notion of civil rights reform, but just in his presidency wanted to focus on foreign-policy issues. He saw it as a distraction from the main goals of his administration.
So I think that when he finally made that decision, it was a sudden turnaround. And much of that speech - it's a very remarkable speech because some of it was extemporaneous. He was writing it right up to the point when he got sat down to deliver it to the nation. And it's remarkable how profound and well-crafted the speech is given that it was not something that he had spent weeks and weeks and had lots of speechwriters working on.
MARTIN: Was that in part what motivated his speech though because he was so interested in the world? Was he in part worried about the U.S. - the perception of the U.S. in the world as a result of the civil rights structure?
CARSON: I think he finally saw that the two issues - the Cold War that he was so interested in was being affected by race relations. That people around the world saw the police dogs and fire hoses that were being used in Birmingham, and that he simply could not avoid this issue anymore.
MARTIN: What ripple effects did - were there effects on the movement after Kennedy was killed?
CARSON: Oh, of course. But I think that the strength of the movement was such that they were - people like myself were in the streets by that time and I think that we were determined to get action on the civil rights issue. So I think that that pressure would've been forceful enough on any president to bring about some kind of reform or the country would've gone the way of South Africa, you know, where it didn't get resolved and it would've been a much more violent result. You know, I think that we sometimes assume that history turned out - had to turn out the way it did. But, you know, we could have followed another course. You know, there were other voices other than Martin Luther King. There was Malcolm X, there were the people - the young people who were very discontented and frustrated. And that frustration and discontent would've exploded.
When Martin Luther King came to visit, his last meeting with John Kennedy was after the church bombing in Birmingham, and he warned the president at that point. He said that if it hadn't been for leaders like myself who are arguing for nonviolence, this country would have the worst race riots that had ever been experienced in America. And I think it was a warning that kind of foretold some of what would happen in the mid-1960s. So I think that the forces that were demanding change and demanding freedom now, would have continued and escalated. And I think we are very fortunate that a president like Johnson recognized the rightness of the cause and was able to bring about these important reforms - the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 - that really completed the task of overcoming the Southern Jim Crow system.
Now after that, there were still many sources of discrimination and segregation, de facto segregation, throughout the nation. And so the nation was still going to go through a very difficult time but it's - I don't think it doesn't - you know, we can imagine how much more difficult the mid-1960s would have been if we didn't have these basic pieces of civil rights legislation on the books before we got to the point when the Northern ghettos were exploding and we were facing, you know, the issue of segregation in the North. And, you know, that would have been even more explosive without those kinds of reforms.
MARTIN: That was professor Clayborne Carson. He's director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, a professor of history at Stanford University, a noted biographer of Martin Luther King, Jr. and a scholar of the civil rights movement. And he was kind enough to join us from the studios at Stanford. Professor Carson, thank you so much for speaking with us.
CARSON: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.
Rev. Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders meet with President John F. Kennedy on August 28, 1963 at the White House.
FROM THE PANOPTICON REVIEW ARCHIVES
(Originally posted on August 24, 2013):
Saturday, August 24, 2013
A Historical Timeline of the Civil Rights Movement from 1960-1964
Timeline of the Civil Rights Movement, 1960-1964
While the non-violent movement for civil rights started in the 1950s, it was during the early sixties that non-violent techniques began to pay off. Civil rights activists and students across the South challenged segregation, and the relatively new technology of television allowed Americans to witness the often brutal response to these protests.
By 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson was able to push through the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. This timeline of the early 1960s Civil Rights Movement reveals just what an impressive number of historic events happened between 1960 and 1964.
On February 1, four young African-American men, students at North Carolina Agriculture and Technical College, go to a Woolworth in Greensboro, North Carolina, and sit down at a whites-only lunch counter. They order coffee. Despite being denied service, they sit silently and politely at the lunch counter until closing time. Their action marks the start of the Greensboro sit-ins, which sparks similar protests all over the South.
On April 15, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee holds its first meeting.
On July 25, the downtown Greensboro Woolworth desegregates its lunch counter after six months of sit-ins.
On Oct. 19, Martin Luther King, Jr., joins a student sit-in at a whites-only restaurant inside of an Atlanta department store, Rich's. He is arrested along with 51 other protesters on the charge of trespassing. On probation for driving without a valid Georgia license (he had an Alabama license), a Dekalb County judge sentences MLK to four months in prison doing hard labor. Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy phones King's wife, Coretta, to offer encouragement while his brother, Robert Kennedy, convinces the judge to release King on bail. This phone call convinces many African-Americans to support the Democratic ticket.
On December 5, the Supreme Court hands down a 7-2 decision in the Boynton v. Virginia case, ruling that segregation on vehicles traveling between states is unlawful because it violates the Interstate Commerce Act.
On May 4, the Freedom Riders, composed of seven African-American and six white activists, leave Washington, D.C. for the rigidly segregated Deep South. Organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), their goal is to test Boynton v. Virginia.
On May 14, Freedom Riders, now traveling in two separate groups, are attacked outside Anniston, Alabama and in Birmingham, Alabama. A mob throws a firebomb onto the bus that the group outside Anniston is riding. Members of the Ku Klux Klan attack the second group in Birmingham after making an arrangement with the local police to allow them 15 minutes alone with the bus.
On May 15, the Birmingham group of Freedom Riders is prepared to continue their trip down south, but no bus will agree to take them. They fly to New Orleans instead.
On May 17, a new group of young activists join two of the original Freedom Riders to complete the trip. They are placed under arrest in Montgomery, Alabama.
On May 29, President Kennedy announces that he has ordered the Interstate Commerce Commission to enact stricter regulations and fines for buses and facilities that refuse to integrate. Young white and black activists continue to make Freedom Rides.
In November, civil rights activists participate in a series of protests, marches and meetings in Albany, Georgia, that come to be known as the Albany Movement.
In December, King comes to Albany and joins the protesters, staying in Albany for another nine months.
On August 10, King announces that he is leaving Albany. The Albany Movement is generally considered a failure in terms of effecting change, but what King learns in Albany allows him to be successful in Birmingham, Alabama.
On September 10, the Supreme Court rules that the University of Mississippi must admit African-American student and veteran James Meredith.
On September 26, the governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, orders state troopers to prevent Meredith from entering Ole Miss's campus.
Between September 30 and October 1, riots erupt at over Meredith's enrollment at the University of Mississippi or "Ole Miss."
On October 1, Meredith becomes the first African-American student at Ole Miss after President Kennedy orders U.S. marshals to Mississippi to ensure his safety.
King, SNCC and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organize a series of demonstrations and protests to challenge segregation in Birmingham, Alabama.
On April 12, Birmingham police arrest King for demonstrating without a city permit.
On April 16, King writes his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" in which he responds to eight white Alabama ministers who urged him to end the protests and be patient with the judicial process of overturning segregation.
On June 11, President Kennedy delivers a speech on civil rights from the Oval Office, specifically explaining why he sent the National Guard to allow the admittance of two African-American students to the University of Alabama.
On June 12, Byron De La Beckwith assassinates Medgar Evers, the first field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Mississippi.
On August 18, James Meredith graduates from Ole Miss.
On August 28, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is held in D.C. Around 250,000 people participate, and King delivers his legendary "I have a dream" speech.
On September 15, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham is bombed. Four young girls are killed.
On November 22, Kennedy is assassinated, but his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, uses the nation's anger to push through civil rights legislation in Kennedy's memory.
On March 12, Malcolm X leaves the Nation of Islam. Among his reasons for the break is Elijah Muhammad's ban on protesting for Nation of Islam adherents.
Between June and August, SNCC organizes a voter registration drive in Mississippi known as Freedom Summer.
On June 21, three Freedom Summer workers--Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman--disappear.
On August 4, the bodies of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman are found in a dam. All three had been shot, and the African-American activist, Chaney, had also been badly beaten.
On June 24, Malcolm founds the Organization of Afro-American Unity along with John Henrik Clarke. Its aim is to unite all Americans of African descent against discrimination.
On July 2, Congress passes the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination in employment and in public places.
In July and August, riots break out in Harlem and Rochester, New York.
On August 27, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDM), organized to challenge the traditional state democratic party that had excluded African Americans, sends a delegation to the national Democratic convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. They ask to represent Mississippi at the convention. Offered two seats at the convention in turn, the MFDM delegates reject the proposal.
On December 10, the Nobel Foundation awards MLK the Nobel Peace Prize.
Timeline of the Civil Rights Movement, 1963-1964:
In Kennedy’s Death, a Turning Point for a Nation Already Torn
A Divided, Dangerous Camelot: The anniversary reverie surrounding President John F. Kennedy’s death has obscured the anarchic disorder that was present in America.
A Divided, Dangerous Camelot: The anniversary reverie surrounding President John F. Kennedy’s death has obscured the anarchic disorder that was present in America.
By SAM TANENHAUS
November 21, 2013
New York Times
Fifty years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the nation seems to be experiencing a kind of fairy tale about itself, alternately bright and dark.
It is inspiring, but also deflating, to see and hear again (and again) the handsome, vigorous president, the youngest ever elected to the office, as he beckons the country forth to the future, to the “New Frontier,” and its promise of conquest: putting a man on the moon, defeating sharply defined evils — totalitarianism, poverty, racial injustice.
This, we have been reminded, was the dream Kennedy nourished, and much of it died with him, when the sharp cracks of rifle fire broke out as his motorcade rolled through the sunstruck streets of Dallas. With this horrific, irrational deed, a curse was laid upon the land, and the people fell from grace.
But this narrative and the anniversary remembrances have obscured the deeper message sent and received on Nov. 22, 1963. In fact, America had already become a divided, dangerous place, with intimations of anarchic disorder. Beneath its gleaming surfaces, a spore had been growing, a mass of violent energies, coiled and waiting to spring.
“The sniper’s bullet left one wound that is not healed, a wound to our consciousness of ourselves as Americans,” the culture critic Dwight Macdonald wrote in December 1963. “Despite all the evidence in the newspapers, the daily stories of senseless brutality and casual murder, we have continued to think of ourselves as a civilized nation where law and order prevail.”
This is not to say America wasn’t a more optimistic place than it is now.
“The sense, one might even say the ‘feeling,’ of being American, was quite different in 1963 from what it would become,” Robert P. George, a professor of politics and law at Princeton who is also the chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, said in an interview.
One reason was that the nation’s most powerful institutions were widely seen as “fundamentally good and trustworthy — government, the military, religious institutions. People even trusted big corporations,” Dr. George said. This was before Vietnam, before scandal shook the foundations of the Roman Catholic Church, before the sequence of Wall Street bubbles and meltdowns.
The tumult of the ‘60s, including the unraveling of the Johnson and Nixon presidencies, came to be depicted, in part, as a disillusioned reaction to Kennedy’s death. But actually, the seeds had begun to sprout during his administration. Kennedy himself embraced a policy of insurgency. He was fixated on ridding Cuba of its dictator, Fidel Castro. And he backed a coup in South Vietnam that resulted in the murder of its president, Ngo Dinh Diem, and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu — an act Kennedy painfully reflected on in a taped memorandum he dictated three weeks before he was killed.
And while many today mourn the loss of the consensus politics of the Cold War era, the center was already collapsing in 1963. Left-wing groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Students for a Democratic Society, both impatient with the slow pace of social change, were formed at the time of Kennedy’s presidency.
On the right, the John Birch Society was flourishing, and in 1962, 18,000 young conservatives attended a rally at Madison Square Garden at which Kennedy was jeered, and a new tribune, Barry M. Goldwater, took the stage. Soon he would vow to clean out “the swampland of collectivism.”
Had Kennedy lived, he might have found himself contending with these fresh rebellions. Instead his memory was sacralized, and his death seen as a kind of freeze-frame, the moment at which America pivoted away from its better self.
But things looked much different at the time.
The best-selling nonfiction book when he was killed was Victor Lasky’s “J.F.K: The Man and the Myth,” a dubiously researched jumble of smears and innuendo, including the stale rumor that Kennedy, an observant Catholic, had suppressed a previous marriage to a Palm Beach socialite. The book was briefly removed from circulation by its publisher, Macmillan, after Kennedy’s death.
Kennedy hatred was deepest, perhaps, in the South, where civil rights battles had grown increasingly tense. “White violence was sort of considered the status quo,” Diane McWhorter, who grew up in Birmingham, Ala., and is the author of “Carry Me Home,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the racial unrest of 1963, said recently.
“There had been so many bombings that people had accepted it,” Ms. McWhorter said. But in May, the city’s blacks struck back, attacking the police and firefighters and setting several businesses on fire. In September, only two months before Dallas, white supremacists in Birmingham planted a bomb in a black church, killing four young girls.
Kennedy himself was a reluctant supporter of civil rights legislation, but when at last he called for it, many Southern whites were enraged.
“I was in my gym class at the Brooke Hill School for girls,” Ms. McWhorter recalled. “Someone came in and said the president had been shot, and people cheered.”
Protest and rage advanced on other fronts, too. Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” published in 1961, lampooned the bureaucratization of the modern warfare state. Thomas Pynchon’s “V,” published in 1963, hinted of conspiratorial webs spun in “a howling Dark Age of ignorance and barbarity.” James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” a best seller in November 1963, explored the world of Elijah Muhammad, whose message to whites, Mr. Baldwin reported, was that “the sword they have used so long against others can now, without mercy, be used against them.”
Stephen Harrigan, a novelist and journalist who lives in Austin, Tex., was a teenager in Corpus Christi, Tex., when Kennedy was assassinated. Dallas “was somewhere else,” a world away, Mr. Harrigan said. But when he moved to Austin, in September 1966, the city was recovering from its own catastrophic spasm of gun violence committed a month before when Charles Whitman, like Lee Harvey Oswald a former Marine, killed 17 people and wounded 32 others in a shooting spree from the clock tower at the University of Texas.
“There was a palpable sense that something had been let loose,” Mr. Harrigan said recently. “The Kennedy assassination had opened up this box of horrors.” But what had been let loose were forces already there. After Oswald and Whitman would come the macabre gallery of angry loners who gained celebrity from the famous people they killed or tried to (George C. Wallace, John Lennon, Ronald Reagan) or who went on mass rampages (at Virginia Tech; in Aurora, Colo.; in Newtown, Conn.).
We’re captivated still by the handsome young president, coming to office at the apex of American power, immortalized in an intoxicating sheen of glamour imparted by the new medium of television. And, of course, we can never know what might have been different had he lived. But one who seems to have recognized the malign forces at play, ahead of those around him, was John F. Kennedy himself. He was averse to large crowds, even though he stirred them — perhaps because he stirred them. His celebrated “cool” masked uneasiness and distrust.
In “A Thousand Days,” published in 1965, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who worked in the Kennedy administration, described a president who had “peered into the abyss and knew the potentiality of chaos.” In the summer of 1963, Mr. Schlesinger reported, Kennedy concluded an informal talk by suddenly reading a portion of Blanche of Castile’s speech from Shakespeare’s “King John,” the lines beginning “The sun’s o’ercast with blood,” and ending “They whirl asunder and dismember me.”
Mr. Schlesinger had predicted a new “politics of hope” with Kennedy’s election. But Kennedy’s own hopes were more tempered. While others basked in the excitements of Camelot, Mr. Schlesinger wrote, Kennedy himself had become acutely aware of the difficulties of governing “a nation so disparate in its composition, so tense in its interior relationships, so cunningly enmeshed in underground fears and antagonisms, so entrapped by history in the ethos of violence.”