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JFK’s Civil Rights Reluctance Ends With Address

In our series, “November 1963,” we listen back to America’s 35th president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. On June 11, 1963, hours after Gov. George Wallace tried to block two African-American students from enrolling in the University of Alabama, President Kennedy went on national television to announce civil rights legislation.

President Kennedy as he starts his radio-television address to the nation on civil rights, June 11, 1963 in Washington. (Charles Gorry/AP)

President Kennedy as he starts his radio-television address to the nation on civil rights, June 11, 1963 in Washington. (Charles Gorry/AP)

BOSTON — Police turned dogs on African-American teenagers. Firemen turned hoses on African-American children. Birmingham, Ala. was a watershed in America’s civil rights struggle. It was also a tipping point for a president who had been reluctant to force a civil rights agenda.

“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.”

Kennedy made an appeal to the collective American conscience.

“This nation was founded on the principle that all men are created equal,” said Kennedy. “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.”

In a televised interview one day earlier, Martin Luther King Jr. urged Kennedy to frame integration as a moral issue. The president got the message.

“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 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?”

“One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves,” said Kennedy. “Yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free.” Neither will America be, he said, “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 a land of the free except for the negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except negroes; that we have no class or cast 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.”

The president’s views on the “race question” evolved over the course of his time in office. This ad-libbed conclusion revealed how far he had come.

“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 10 percent of the population that you can’t have that right; that your children can’t have the chance to develop whatever talents they have; that the only way that they are going to get their rights is to go into the streets and demonstrate. I think we owe them and we owe ourselves a better country than that.”

After delivering the speech, Kennedy told a friend, “Sometimes you look at what you’ve done and the only thing you ask yourself is what took you so long to do it?” Kennedy sent his civil rights bill to Congress the following week.

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