Violence Transformed JFK's Civil Rights Push

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In the 1960s, the civil rights movement and the presidency of John F. Kennedy were inextricably linked. It was during a particularly turbulent time in that decade that Kennedy went on television to address the nation and propose the passage of civil rights legislation. He wouldn’t live to see it happen. In a series we're calling "November 1963,” we look at Kennedy's role in the civil rights movement.

A 17-year-old civil rights demonstrator, defying an anti-parade ordinance of Birmingham, Ala., is attacked by a police dog on May 3, 1963. President Kennedy discussed this photo, which had appeared on the front page of that day's New York Times. (Bill Hudson/AP)
A 17-year-old civil rights demonstrator, defying an anti-parade ordinance of Birmingham, Ala., is attacked by a police dog on May 3, 1963. President Kennedy discussed this photo, which had appeared on the front page of that day's New York Times. (Bill Hudson/AP)

BOSTON — Sen. John F. Kennedy launched his presidential campaign in 1960 with a promise of a "new frontier" and a blistering criticism of the outgoing Eisenhower administration.

“A peaceful revolution for human rights, demanding an end to racial discrimination in all parts of our community life, has strained at the leashes imposed by a timid executive leadership," Kennedy said.

The civil rights movement was increasingly visible and there was competition for the black vote. Kennedy's 1960 opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon, ran a series of television commercials called "the living room candidate."

In the commercials, Nixon appealed to the American people by discussing "equal rights for all our citizens."

The Democrats adopted a strong civil rights plank as part of their party platform, but the dynamics of the election changed because of a series of phone calls that Kennedy made after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested in Georgia.

"He was arrested in Atlanta and he was in a picket line with students. They separated him from the students," said Andrew Young, executive vice president of Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

"In the middle of the night, they put him in chains in the back of a paddy wagon with nobody but him and a German shepherd and they drove 300 miles from Atlanta to Reidsville penitentiary, and nobody knew where he was for two or three days," Young said. "And Mrs. King was desperate. He was, I think that was probably the hardest time in his life."

On Oct. 27, 1960, in the waning days of the presidential campaign, King walked out of that prison.

"I owe a great debt of gratitude to Sen. Kennedy and his family for this," Dr. King said. "I don't know the details of it, but naturally I'm very happy to know of Sen. Kennedy's concern and all that he did to make this possible."

According to Young, King's father, a prominent baptist minister in Atlanta — fondly called "Daddy King" — launched a big Kennedy movement in black churches across the country.

"Daddy King said, 'I was having trouble with this Catholic boy, but we've never had anybody step up and say a word for us before, so I'm going to throw all my votes to him,' " Young said.

Kennedy won that election by less than half a percentage point of the popular vote. His victory was helped by two opposing forces: African-American voters and Southern white Democrats who were still steadfast in their opposition to desegregation policies.

But once Kennedy was in office, initially there was very little policy progress on civil rights. The relationship between the president and civil rights leaders suffered.

"We always felt that this was somebody whose heart and head was in the right place," Young said. "But we knew that growing up in Massachusetts he probably had not had any experiences with black people and he didn't understand the South, really."

The everyday realities of inequities in the South were making their way onto the evening news on a regular basis.

The Birmingham campaign, children jailed, firefighters turning their powerful water hoses on children as they marched, police dogs attacking children — those were the images making their way into homes across America, and to countries around the world.

"The United States is concerned about its image. When things started happening down here, Mr. Kennedy got disturbed," Dr. King said. "For Mr. Kennedy has to sit around tables of the world."

"Kennedy, on all the major civil rights steps, had to be very careful in trying to measure whether the backlash to it would do more harm than the good of going forward," said former Pennsylvania Sen. Harris Wofford, who was Kennedy's special assistant for civil rights. "That's why the decision to go forward before he died was a very important one that made history."

On June 11, 1963, the day that Alabama Gov. George Wallace stood the in the doorway of the University of Alabama as black students arrived to enroll, the president went on national TV with his strongest statement yet on civil rights, casting it as a moral issue as old as the Scriptures.

"The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities," Kennedy said, "whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated."

Hours after that speech, news spread that Medgar Evers, head of the NAACP in Jackson, Miss., was fatally shot as he arrived at his home. He had told his wife and kids to wait up so that they could watch the president's speech together.

Kennedy followed his speech by introducing to Congress a comprehensive civil rights bill. Then came the matter of trying to get it through Congress. In a phone call with Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, of Montana, Kennedy discussed the bill.

"If that that civil rights bill is going to come out of that committee, the report we're going to try to rush. Let's say we get a ruling and get it through the House before the end of November. We've got a chance to do a lot of good things this year," Kennedy told Mansfield.

As the civil rights bill was filibustered in Congress, King and other civil rights leaders pushed ahead with plans for a March on Washington, despite the president's concerns.

"We were with him and he was with us," Young said. "It was a team spiritually and intellectually, but it never became a partnership. Dr. King was always reluctant because he always felt that anytime somebody from the Kennedys contacted him, they were trying to get him not to do something."

The march went ahead as planned, becoming the largest demonstration ever in the nation's capital. Afterward, the leaders of the march met with the president at the White House.

Young remembered Kennedy being relieved by how well the march went. But that didn't ease the tensions with the director of the FBI. The president was caught in the middle.

"He was being fed all kinds of misinformation by J. Edgar Hoover," Young said. "He did everything he could to undermine our efforts with the president, and in the Congress and with the press."

Less than three months later, the president was killed, riding in a motorcade in Dallas.

Longtime Boston education activist Jean McGuire said she will never forget that day.

"We cried. I can remember we all cried. They killed the president," she said. "My mother, we sat in the kitchen and we cried. They killed the president. That meant they would kill us, too. We saw him as a protector."

"I was shocked, just like everybody else," said Melvin Miller, a publisher of the Boston weekly newspaper The Bay State Banner.

"We have the much-touted Secret Service that provides the best security for our president, and to tell you the truth, I think it made everybody feel more insecure," Miller said.

Kennedy’s civil rights legislation stalled in Congress.

His vice president, Lyndon Johnson of Texas, would spend the next eight months battling other Southern politicians to push it through.

Many say Johnson did what Kennedy could not do.

Still, Kennedy to this day remains one of the most popular public figures of his time, especially with African-Americans.

"I think the spirit of freedom and openness was genuine," Miller said. "I don't think it was just a political ploy. I think he understood the viciousness of the kind of racial discrimination that we practiced in the U.S. and he definitely wanted to get rid of it."

At the JFK presidential library in Dorchester, Barbara Jackson, a visitor from Chicago, was one of the hundreds of thousands of people visiting the library this year.

"I think at the time it felt very devastating, like we wouldn't be able to make the progress that we were hoping for," Jackson said. "But people didn't give up, and so we see that there has been progress — still a lot work to do, lots and lots of work to do."

Even as an African-American now holds the nation's highest office.

This program aired on November 8, 2013.

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Delores Handy Reporter
Delores Handy was formerly a host and reporter at WBUR.



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