John Kennedy and Civil Rights

John Kennedy and Civil Rights

In 1960, more than 70 per cent of African Americans voted for Kennedy. When he took office in January 1961, he knew that he had to act on the promises he had made to African Americans - a civil rights agenda needed to be put into action. However, John Kennedy and Civil Rights are not necessarily synonymous - the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cold War and a Congress packed with Southern Conservatives both prevented him from pushing through any landmark legislation before his death in November 1963.

Born on 29 May 1917 to rich socialites, John F Kennedy grew up in Boston before moving to New York at the age of 10. Elite families looked down on the Kennedys as a result of their Irish ancestry and the family moved to New York in the the hope that the cosmopolitan culture qould allow them access to high society.

Kennedy went on to study at Harvard, before becoming a Democratic congressmen in 1946.

Many argue that Kennedy was a political realist rather than a visionary. This is supported by the fact he voted against Eisenhower’s 1957 Civil Rights Act. The route from bill to act threatened to tear apart the Republicans. Kennedy hoped to run for the Democratic presidential candidate in the 1960 election. He knew that it would improve his chances to be seen taking the party line and opposing the bill. Kennedy led the Democrats to victory over Richard Nixon in 1960.

John F. Kennedy, White House photo portrait, looking up
John F. Kennedy, White House photo portrait, looking up

However, civil rights played a significant part in Kennedy’s election campaign. He made it clear that he was a supporter of civil rights. Historians debate about the reason for this change of opinion. Some argued that the opposition to the 1957 Act was understandable considering the public opposition to it. Others have suggested that Kennedy was merely appealing to the ‘Black Vote’. He also believed that a good president should use federal power to end poor housing conditions. He also gained support from Martin Luther King Snr after he called with the press and public to sympathise with King’s wife, Coretta, while the activist was in prison.

As president, Kennedy failed to act quickly on his campaign promises, despite the growing momentum of the Civil Rights Movement and a 1960 report by the Civil Rights Commission, which revealed the full extent of discrimination in America. Among the findings were that 57 per cent of houses inhabited by African americans was deemed unacceptable and that infant mortality among the black population was twice as high as for whites.

There are various reasons for this failure to give civil rights a priority. For one, the president have priority to international issues. What’s more, despite increasing activism he was aware that civil rights were not at the top of most Americans’ agenda.

Despite increasing activism, he knew that there was no great public support for such legislation. Opinion polls indicated that in 1960 and 1961, civil rights was at the bottom of the list when people were asked "what needs to be done in America to advance society?"

However, Kennedy did focus some of his attention on the issue of civil rights. For example, encourages the employment of African Americans in government, although these were usually the lowest ranked and lowest paid jobs.

Kennedy responded to this by appointing African Americans to federal government posts. All in all, Kennedy appointed 40 black Americans to senior federal positions including five as federal judges.

Kennedy also made his brother (Robert) as Attorney General. They worked together to enforce civil rights legislation, as opposed to creating anything new. No southern court could argue against existing laws, even if they did interpret them in their own way.

JFK along with his brother Robert brough 57 law suits against different local municipalities for obstructing African Americans’ voting rights. In Louisiana, local officials who refused to comply were threatened with a jail sentence.

Kennedy relied on symbolic gestures to promote himself as a pro-civil rights president. For example, although other major league football teams had allowed African Americans to join their teams, the Washington Redskins refused to sign them. As their stadium was funded by the government, Kennedy warned that they would have to vacate it if they refused to sign Black players.

Kennedy created the CEEO (Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity) whose job was to ensure that all employees of the federal government received equal employment opportunities. WHile the CEEO helped to some extent to get black people into work, its power was limited.

The question of whether John Kennedy truly supported civil rights is debated by historians. In many senses, his hands were tied by both national and international events. Public support for civil rights was also limited - although the public were shocked by violence towards the Freedom Riders of 1961, 63 per cent of respondents said the Freedom Rides were wrong. Kennedy himself condemned the Riders for protesting about domestic issues while the threat of the Cold War grew increasingly imminent. For many Americans, fear over the Cold War was more important than racial issues.

In his first year of office, Kennedy did little to tackle voter registration. On the advice of his Attorney-General brother, Bobby, Kennedy claimed that it was a state issue rather than a federal one. He had also promised to fight housing segregation, but African Americans were angered by his lack of action.

"He said while he was running for office he could eliminate housing segregation with the stroke of a pen," historian Nick Bryant explained. "And people in the movement began sending him pens, because apparently there were not pens in the White House that he could use to do this."

Again, in 1961 Kennedy failed to stamp out violence in Albany because he accused the SNCC of aggravating the violence.

It was James Meredith who forced Kennedy to take action after he appealed against the University of Mississippi's decision to revoke his application because he was black.. With legal aid from NAACP, Meredith won the case. Bobby Kennedy ordered 500 marshals to accompany Meredith when he went to enroll to guarantee his safety. However, riots broke out, injuring nearly 200 of the marshals. To maintain law and order, John Kennedy federalised the Mississippi National Guard and sent federal troops to the university. Eventually, Meredith was able to enroll to the university. However, it is possible that had if it had not been for the publicity surrounding the affair, Kennedy would not have intervened.

The 1963 Birmingham affair also demanded Kennedy’s intervention. The actions ordered by the racist Bull Connor "sickened" Kennedy. The Justice Department was ordered to Birmingham by Bobby Kennedy to maintain law and order. As a result of the Birmingham campaign, African Americans’ employment opportunities improved and  public facilities were desegregated.

Kennedy initially opposed the 1963 March on Washington as he was worried that it would disrupt Congress during discussions over the civil rights bill. Kennedy eventually supported the march after the organisers allowed Federal Government to have some influence in it.  Malcolm X was to nickname the march "The Farce on Washington". Historians now view the march as a great success for both King and the federal government as it went well in all aspects.

The nation praised the murdered president in the wake of his death, which horrified the US and the world. To do otherwise would have been considered highly unpatriotic. However, in recent years there has been a re-evaluation of Kennedy. For a man who made such grand promises, Kennedy did very little. Congress rejected his Department of Urban Affairs and eventually only passed a weak housing act which applied only to future federal housing projects.

Kennedy had to deal with pressure from southern Democrats; increasing concerns over the Cold War and problems in Cuba.

In many senses Kennedy had little scope to champion civil rights. If he helped the African Americans in the South, he lost the support of the powerful Democrats there. If he did nothing, he faced worldwide condemnation.

See also: Lyndon Johnson

MLA Citation/Reference

"John Kennedy and Civil Rights". HistoryLearning.com. 2015. Web.



Key facts

Name: John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Birth Date: 29 May 1917, Brookline, Massachusetts
Death: 22 November 1963, Dallas, Texas
Reign: 20 January 1961 - 22 November 1963
Political Party: Democratic