John F. Kennedy served as the 35th president of the United States from 1961 until his assassination in 1963. Kennedy was a critical figure in U.S. history as it related to the experience of African Americans during the pivotal years of the civil rights movement. Although many have called Kennedy a reluctant participant in the civil rights movement, he was an essential participant nonetheless—he helped push civil rights legislation through Congress, supported the integration of schools and universities throughout the South, and collaborated extensively with leaders of the civil rights movement.
Born May 29, 1917, in Brookline, Massachusetts, John Fitzgerald “Jack” Kennedy grew up in a large, Roman Catholic family. Illness kept him indoors, reading, for most of his childhood and even hindered his graduation from both the London School of Economics and Princeton University as a young man. However, he eventually graduated from Harvard in 1940 and then enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War II. In 1946, he began his political career when he was elected a Democratic representative of Massachusetts. Six years later, as the civil rights movement was building in momentum, he was elected to the U.S. Senate.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional in the federal court case Brown v. Board of Education. However, this ruling was widely ignored throughout the South, and schools as well as restaurants, theaters, bathrooms, and many other public facilities remained segregated. As a result, the struggle for civil rights and social justice became an issue that necessitated action. Led by individuals such as Martin Luther King Jr. and by organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the civil rights movement began to take action in the form of a series of sit-ins and nonviolent protests. As early as 1957, astute congressional leaders began to recognize that civil rights legislation would eventually become inevitability.
In 1956 and 1957, as the junior senator from Massachusetts, Kennedy designed a strategy for how to accommodate African Americans as well as a wide variety of Democrats in regard to civil liberties. However, this strategy was hardly the position of a stanch civil rights advocate. Instead, it was a political maneuver and calculated with thoughts of a campaign for the presidency in 1960. Kennedy engaged in debates on the Senate floor regarding Titles III and IV of a bill that would give the U.S. attorney general the power to intervene in school desegregations with military force. He was able to support this bill without upsetting northern liberals or southern conservatives, both constituencies that he would need in his bid for the presidency in 1960. Indeed, Kennedy walked a very thin line, which brought criticism from several stanch civil rights advocates.
This legislation culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which created a commission to monitor violations of civil liberties, especially as it applied to voting. It also upgraded the Civil Rights office to the Justice Department and gave that office the power to commence civil measures against states that discriminated based on race. Further, many saw Kennedy’s support of a bill carrying an amendment guaranteeing the right of all Americans to serve on federal juries as a fake bill with no real substantive power to change the status quo. However, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was the first time since Reconstruction that the U.S. Congress had acted in any way to protect the civil liberties of African Americans. Thus, Kennedy’s journey down the path of civil rights began, and public sentiment held that he was trying to press forward with equal treatment of African Americans, but that he was most concerned with securing national unity through a legality course.
In Kennedy’s bid for the White House in 1960 against Richard Nixon, he chose the tenuous position to advance civil rights. This position was politically expedient, as it secured the African American vote as well as consolidated the votes of northern liberals in favor of desegregation. However, Kennedy was taking a political gamble in losing the support of southern Democrats such as A. Willis Robertson and Harry F. Byrd of Virginia, who were pro-segregation. Kennedy began to add many leaders of the civil rights movement to his staff, including Marjorie Lawson, William Dawson, and Frank Reeves, who advised him on how to espouse an aggressive civil rights agenda. The Kennedy campaign also encouraged the creation of a national organization to create a nationwide voter registration drive within African American communities.
Throughout the campaign, Kennedy applauded the peaceful nonviolent strategies of civil rights activists; he spoke at several engagements at predominantly African American conferences and criticized the inaction of previous presidents who failed to bring integration sooner. Further, he promised to support civil rights legislation, including a pledge to see more African Americans hired in the highest levels of the federal government. Kennedy also cultivated favor among African Americans when he telephoned Coretta Scott King in regard to the jailing of her husband, Martin Luther King Jr. Indeed, not only did Kennedy sympathize with Mrs. King, but also his phone calls, as well as those of his brother Bobby, convinced Georgia’s governor, Ernest Vandiver, to set King free. This multifaceted strategy landed Kennedy the support of African Americans in his bid for the presidency in 1960. Given the slim margin of victory (about 100,000 votes), African American voters played a significant role in sealing the victory for Kennedy. Nixon’s attempt to strengthen his support among southern voters, as well as his silence about issues surrounding civil liberties, caused many African American voters to reconsider their old ties to the Republican Party, which went back to the party’s pro–civil rights record during Reconstruction in the mid-to-late 1860s.
Upon winning the presidency, Kennedy grew increasingly concerned about the violence surrounding the civil rights movement, particularly the Freedom Rides. His interests in civil liberties continued to display this concern, as his policies addressed the prevention of further disorder and violence. Because of his stance during the election, Kennedy was in a fixed position among southern democrats. However, it actually freed him to aid the civil rights movement in several ways. His first act as president toward support of the movement was the issuance of Executive Order 11063. This order obliged government agencies to discontinue discriminatory practices in federal housing. Kennedy also named Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to be the chair of a newly appointed Committee on Equal Employment. In addition, nominating African Americans to a number of posts including Thurgood Marshall to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, Carl Rowan to deputy assistant of the secretary of state, and George L. P. Weaver to assistant secretary of labor, further ingratiated Kennedy to African Americans.
One of the defining moments of the Kennedy administration in regard to civil rights was on June 25, 1962. James Meredith had applied to the University of Mississippi, had been rejected based on his race, and thus filed a complaint for racial discrimination in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Fifth Circuit ruled that the university should admit Meredith, but Mississippi governor Ross Barnett stated that he would physically stand in the way of integration. As a result, Kennedy sent 300 federal marshals to enforce the court’s decision. There were riots on campus that yielded the deaths of two individuals and over 200 arrests, and many federal marshals sustained serious injuries. Kennedy then put the Mississippi National Guard under federal jurisdiction and made sure that Meredith was admitted. Later, in June 1963, Kennedy took the same action against George Wallace in the desegregation of the University of Alabama.
In August 1963, Kennedy proposed to Congress the strongest civil rights bill yet seen in U.S. history. However, the strong bloc of southern voters in the House and Senate were able to keep the bill from passing. In support of Kennedy’s bold new legislation, a coalition was formed between several civil rights organizations, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which organized a massive march in Washington. Later that August, about 250,000 marchers gathered near the Lincoln Memorial in support of equality in the job market, freedom, and civil justice through the passage of Kennedy’s legislation. This is the context for Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Using television images, many Americans witnessed this important protest of racial discrimination, and there was no doubt that the March on Washington helped pave the way toward the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, in an act that became a double-edged sword for the civil rights movement, the assassination of Kennedy in November 1963 proved to be a tremendous loss, but also perhaps a tremendous gain for the movement.
The legacy of Kennedy as it related to the civil rights movement was fully realized by the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After the death of Kennedy, Vice President Johnson was inaugurated as the 36th president of the United States. Johnson, having taken the oath of office only four days prior, disclosed to the nation that he planned to support Kennedy’s civil rights bill as a testament to Kennedy’s work toward civil justice. A southerner from Texas, many leaders of the civil rights movement feared that Johnson would only buttress the southern voting bloc in the legislature that had kept such a bill from previous passage. However, with years of legislative experience at work, Johnson was able to push the bill through Congress despite massive resistance in the form of southern filibusters. The act banned segregation and racial discrimination in public facilities such as restaurants, hotels, schools, libraries, and swimming pools.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 also called for a ban of racial discrimination in the American workforce. No longer could employers discriminate based on race, religion, ethnicity, or sex when considering a hire, promotion, or termination. To enforce these positions, the federal government was granted the power to withhold federal funding to any organization that was discriminating in any way. Finally, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 led to the desegregation of many public schools, it created the Employment Opportunity Commission to oversee practices of racial prejudice in employment, and it gave the attorney general the power to initiate prosecution on behalf of those who had been the victims of unfair injustice. This is perhaps one of the greatest legacies of the Kennedy administration as it related to the civil rights movement. Unfortunately, it was not until after Kennedy’s premature death that the dream was fully realized.
In August 1965, Congress passed another act that augmented the 1964 legislation. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, although signed into law by Johnson, was also a part of the Kennedy civil rights legacy. This act outlawed the educational requirements throughout many states in the South that called for the reciting of the constitution or for the “proper” interpretations of various sections of the constitution in order to vote. Many of these requirements had kept African Americans from voting and therefore had a tremendous effect on the racial bias of state and local elections. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 also gave the attorney general the power to assign federal voter registrars to record African American voters. This had a tremendous influence on the numbers of the African American electorate. For instance, in Mississippi alone, the number of enrolled African American voters grew from 28,000 in 1964 to over 250,000 in 1968.
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