JFK and Civil Rights

Kennedy Meeting the Leaders of March on Washington

President Kennedy had criticized the Republicans for not moving faster for civil rights. His administration got off to a slow start in this area. He feared that actions taken in civil rights would diminish his political support. Civil Rights Events, however, forced him to take action. JFK was forced to send Federal marshals, followed by Federal troops, in to Oxford Mississippi to desegregate the University under court order. The brutal police action against Black protestors in Birmingham convinced Kennedy the time was right to propose a comprehensive civil rights plan.


President Kennedy was sympathetic to the needs of African Americans; however, he was convinced that if he moved too quickly on issues of civil rights, he would lose key support for other goals. He started his administration by taking definitive administrative actions to give blacks more opportunities in government. At his first Cabinet meeting he asked that every cabinet member try to recruit blacks to work for their departments.

By February, it was clear to Kennedy that he would not be able to achieve approval of any significant civil rights legislation in his first year. He saw that it would be almost impossible to break a Southern filibuster. He did, however, signal his continued commitment to civil rights by indicating that he would renew the mandate of the Civil Rights Commission, which was due to expire. He appointed Harris Wofford to be his Special Assistant for Civil Rights. He told Wofford that the strategy for 1961 was " minimum legislation, maximum executive actions" .

The pace of the civil rights movement, however, would not be determined by the President. His stirring words had helped energize the movement and it was moving apace.

The first time the Administration was forced to actively intervene was in support of the " Freedom Riders" who challenged the accepted rules of segregation in the South and were attacked for their actions. Under Robert F. Kennedy, the Justice department sent Federal Marshals to Birmingham, Alabama to protect the Riders after they were attacked upon their arrival in the city. The Administration also had to address the turmoil that arose when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. arrived in Birmingham.

The involvement of the President really began with the enrollment of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi. He sued to be admitted, and won the case. When Mississippi refused to implement the decision, the courts turned to the Administration as the executive branch of government, and made it clear that it was their responsibility to implement the decision.

In his 1962 State of Union Address, he spoke out strongly for Civil Rights and touted the work his Administration had already done including a newly-created committee led by the Vice President to force government contractor to integrate. He stated further, " The right to vote, for example, should no longer be denied through such arbitrary devices on a local level, sometimes abused, such as literacy tests and poll taxes. As we approach the 100th anniversary, next January, of the Emancipation Proclamation, let the acts of every branch of the Government-and every citizen-portray that "righteousness does exalt a nation. "

His rhetoric was not necessary matched by actions, believing as he did that the multiple international crises facing the country should remain his highest priority. Events conspired, however, to force his hand. In September, a black young man named James Meredith enrolled at the segregated University of Mississippi at Oxford (otherwise known as "Ole Miss".) Meredith had fought for his admission all the way to the Supreme Court. When the Supreme Court ordered his enrollment, President Kennedy had no choice but to implement the decision of the court. He sent US Marshals to Mississippi to carry out the decision. At the same time, he came to an agreement with Governor Ross Barnett of Mississippi: Meredith would register on a Sunday and enough state troopers would be provided to protect both Meredith and the US Marshals. But Barnett double-crossed the President, and as he was about to go on national television to announce that Meredith had been successfully enrolled, the state troops disappeared and a mob began attacking Meredith and the US Marshalls. Kennedy was forced to call in the members of the US military who were on standby at Fort Bragg. It took hours for them to respond, but by morning 24,000 troops were patrolling Oxford, Mississippi and James Meredith was an enrolled student.

In the spring of 1963, the civil rights movement focused its attention on Birmingham, Alabama, which was the most segregated major city in the United States. The town police commissioner, Eugene Bull Connors, met the demonstrators with clubs, dogs and water cannons. Every evening, Americans were greeted with pictures of the events in Birmingham on their nightly news. This had a profound impact on public opinion. President Kennedy felt that it was time to start moving on civil rights. The ugliness occurring in Birmingham had forced his hand. The President became directly involved in working out a compromise agreement to integrate many of the key establishment in Birmingham.

His next challenge was dealing with Alabama Governor George Wallace, who was committed to stopping the integration of the University of Alabama. Wallace's determination to stop integration from happening convinced Kennedy that he would need to take stronger action on behalf of civil rights. Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard to insure the integration of the Alabama University. Kennedy's success in forcing Wallace to comply inspired the President to address the American people on June 11, 1963. It is considered by many as one of his finest speeches: " 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. "

The situation in the South seemed to be coming to a head. The following week, after activist Medgar Evers was shot[the President introduced a wide-ranging Civil Rights Law that would guarantee the right to vote, eliminate all discrimination in hotels, restaurants and other public establishments. Kennedy knew that proposing this bill was politically dangerous, but he felt there was no alternative. At a press conference on August 1, 1963 the following exchange took place:

QUESTION FROM THE FLOOR: There are indications lately that your policies on civil rights are costing you heavily in political prestige and popularity. Would you comment on that, and would you tell us whether civil rights are worth an election?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I assume what you say is probably right. On the other hand, this is a national crisis of great proportions. I am confident that whoever was President would meet his responsibilities. Crises come in different forms. I don€™t think anyone would have anticipated the exact form of this particular crisis. Maybe last winter we were dealing with other matters. But I think it has come and we are going to deal with it. My judgment is that both political parties finally will come to the same conclusion, and that is that every effort should be made to protect the rights of all of our citizens, and advance their right to equality of opportunity. Education, jobs, security, right to move freely about our country, right to make personal choices--these are matters which it seems to me are very essential, very desirable, and we just have to wait and see what political effect they have.

To support the legislation, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. planned a large-scale March on Washington. Kennedy was weary, feeling it might not succeed, but after failing to convince King to call off the march, the President did all he could to ensure its success. The March turned out to be one of the seminal events of the 1960s and gave an enormous boost to efforts to pass the civil rights legislation. But after the death of Kennedy, it would fall to President Johnson to pass the sweeping legislation known as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.