JFK: Civil rights leader or spectator?
It was not until the violence in Birmingham, Alabama, reached a boiling point in the summer of 1963, that Kennedy made a decisive decision on the matter.
In April 1963, civil rights activists launched a campaign in the city that included boycotts, sit-ins at the lunch counter, and protests at town hall. In early May, 1,000 children joined the protests and hundreds of them were arrested. It didn’t take long for the police to point high pressure hoses and dogs at them, resulting in haunting images that circulated in the media and sparked national outrage.
“I know from JFK’s reaction to the garden hoses in Birmingham and the washed-up kids on the streets that he was horrified by this,” Bond told America Tonight. “He thought that wasn’t the way it should be. And I think that pushed him a bit.”
In June 1963, he was ready to act. Earlier in the year, Kennedy introduced a civil rights bill that left out the primary concern of integrating public facilities. He gave little support to the bill and ultimately failed. But this time it would be different. Kennedy worked feverishly to craft a speech that would be the basis for new legislation.
“The president personally worked on this speech almost until it was time to get on TV and make the announcement,” Seigenthaler recalls.
“We are mainly faced with a moral problem. It is as old as the scriptures and as clear as the US Constitution. The heart of the matter is whether all Americans should be granted equal rights and opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans the way we want to be treated, ” he reads.
“If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot have 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 public officials who represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life that we all want, then who among us would just change the color of his skin and stand in his place? delay?”
The speech, in which he also announced he would send comprehensive civil rights legislation to Congress, struck a chord.
“I remember saying I never thought the President of the United States would say these things that way,” Bond said. “I was so happy. It was the loudest speech ever by a US president on civil rights to my knowledge, until then. It was just wonderful.”
For Kennedy, the speech was unique because it presented civil rights as a moral issue.
“It was like Lincoln turned slavery into a moral issue during the Civil War,” Perry said. “And so it was an emotional message rather than an emotional delivery that he gave.”
Kennedy wouldn’t live to see the civil rights reform that would pass the following year, but his 1963 speech would make history.
But for some, Kennedy was slow to act and did not deserve the mantle given to him.
“He could have expressed himself when he didn’t. When he did speak it was wonderful and should have shown him how great he could have been,” Bond said. “But for reasons we’re not really sure he chose not to. And as a result, he probably slowed things down to a certain rate, when it could have happened at a faster rate. . “