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Civil Rights

The Kennedys were Catholic outsiders in an East Coast political landscape that had long been dominated by an impenetrable Brahmin social code. In 1960, an Irish American was far more likely to be employed as a plumber than a senator, and perhaps in part because of the family’s remarkable, yet incongruous rise to immense privilege, the Kennedys were perceived as being fundamentally different. During the 1960 presidential election, many African Americans put their faith in this difference — daring to hope that the toxic disequilibrium of the political and social status quo might finally be altered in a positive and meaningful way by selecting the Kennedy ticket.

Late in the 1960 presidential campaign, JFK was suddenly thrust into the complexities of Southern Civil Rights tensions when he and his brother Bobby intervened on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s behalf to have him released from prison. King had been arrested after participating in a peaceful protest and was now incarcerated at the maximum security state prison at Reidsville, Georgia, where he was to serve a six month sentence of hard labor on a traffic violation technicality. The unjustness of King’s excessive sentence reflected not only the commonplace discriminatory treatment of African Americans in the Deep South, it also revealed the brazenly complicitous state-sponsored persecution that was to come. The following spring, the Congress of Racial Equality set in motion the first of a number of Freedom Rides that ended in highly publicized violence. The Freedom Riders were a group of black and white activists who rode together on Greyhound and Trailways buses in an effort to expose the lingering, criminal defiance of the Deep Southern states to obey a Supreme Court decision which had declared that segregation in public bus terminals was unconstitutional. The first Freedom ride ended in a grim firebombing by a white mob in Anniston, Alabama, and subsequent Freedom Rides resulted in attacks by angry white mobs in Birmingham and in Montgomery.

In spite of Kennedy’s pre-election, political gesture to help Dr. King, the president did not immediately embrace Civil Rights issues, and the impetus for legislation was at first stalled in an agonizing phase of avoidance and inaction. The President chose, for instance, not to invite Civil Rights leaders to his inauguration celebration and he delegated all authority to deal with Civil Rights issues to his brother Bobby, the U.S. Attorney General. He was fearful of making symbolic gestures that might antagonize a heavily conservative Congress. JFK did not want to risk having these Southerners throw up a wall of censure that might lead to the immediate tabling of legislation meant to benefit African Americans in the areas of federal housing and minimum wage increases. This practical-minded reluctance to support sweeping structural change greatly frustrated Civil Rights activists and added to a mutually growing attitude of mistrust.

JFK’s political position was certainly nothing, if not agonizingly complex. He was caught between a pernicious, Deep Southern tradition of Jim Crow apartheid and a Civil Rights movement that refused to ease the devastating momentum that had been gathering apace, due in large part to their highly effective strategy of direct, nonviolent confrontation. This powerful strategy would eventually compel the Federal executive to affirm its superiority over wanton state actors like Alabama governor George Wallace who declared his naked contempt for Federal law when he infamously stated from the state Capitol in Montgomery: “Segregation now...segregation tomorrow... segregation forever!”

Racist views like those of Governor Wallace were an ugly and embarrassing impediment to the Administration’s efforts to resolve the many dire foreign policy issues that confronted the nation. The grotesque, imagery of Southern white supremacist violence that saw police dogs attacking children and irate mobs beating defenseless young men into battered states of unconsciousness flashed into America’s living rooms with increasing frequency and they shocked the nation. This cancerous affliction of bigotry had become visceral international footage and it was diminishing U.S. political credibility in the Cold War crusade to win the hearts and minds of citizens of newly independent nations around the globe. At first, JFK had hoped to rein in the unyielding dynamics of the Civil Rights movement, but by June of 1963 it had become clear to the President that the demand for dignity for all American citizens was fundamentally a moral issue.

In what has come to be called his finest hour, the President delivered a televised speech to the nation in which he asked Americans of all walks of life and from every region of the country to examine their consciences. Never before had a president of the United States so forthrightly admonished the American people for their broad and longstanding acceptance of such appalling moral hypocrisy. His speech also announced the need for Congress to put an end to the “arbitrary indignities” inflicted upon African Americans through the enactment of a Civil Rights bill. One hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the highest and most powerful office in the land had finally spoken and made it clear that change must come: "This nation, for all its hopes, and for all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free."

And change did come. In no small part, it came as a result of his brother Bobby’s close affiliation with prominent Civil Rights, religious and labor leaders.

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Civil Rights Leaders with Robert F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Bobby’s astuteness, perseverance and open-mindedness helped to shift his brother’s thinking toward the urgency of taking a stand and these qualities also enabled Bobby to forge relationships that would lead to the organization of the deeply significant March on Washington in the fall of 1963. Change came in numerous guises and voices. And the voice that rang out the loudest and the longest was that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — the Civil Rights visionary whose release from prison JFK had helped secure just three years earlier.


Brett Grant