Americans count President John F. Kennedy's civil rights record among one of his greatest legacies. Delivered just months before his assassination, his landmark 1963 speech framing civil rights as both a constitutional and moral imperative helped pave the way for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and made him an icon of the movement in his death.
But civil rights leaders who knew him and biographers who studied him told America Tonight that Kennedy was no Abraham Lincoln. Instead, they remember a more complicated figure in the movement: a leader who was more of a pragmatist than a visionary when it came to advancing the cause, and who took a long path and extreme political calculus to finally advocate for the rights he is best remembered fighting for today.
"I couldn't understand why so many people elevated Kennedy as highly as they did," civil rights leader Julian Bond told America Tonight. "He was a good figure, but not a great figure in my view, and was disappointing in many ways."
A campaign and the black vote
In 1960, the civil rights movement was in full swing, and neither candidate in that year's presidential election – Kennedy and Richard Nixon – could ignore it.
Almost every day, protesters led sit-ins, boycotts and peaceful marches across the country, calling for their rights under the law, equal access and opportunity, and an end to the segregation that persisted in many parts of the South. Their efforts were often met with violence and arrest.
Both Kennedy and Nixon openly sympathized with African-Americans, but neither pushed concrete solutions out on the campaign trail, fearful of alienating Southern whites.
In October, then-Sen. Kennedy learned civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. had been arrested on trumped-up charges after leading a sit-in in Atlanta. His advisers had heard from King's wife, Coretta, that she was very worried about her husband's safety, fearing he could be killed in prison.
"Many of President Kennedy's advisors encouraged him not to get involved," biographer Barbara Perry explained.
But one of them, Robert Sargent Shriver, Jr., Kennedy’s soon to be brother-in-law, encouraged him to call Mrs. King. Kennedy did.
"I know this must be very hard for you, and I just wanted you to know that I was thinking about you and Dr. King," he reportedly told her. "If there is anything I can do to help, please feel free to call on me."
The next day, his brother, Robert Kennedy, made a well-placed phone call to a judge, helping secure King's release. The moves earned Kennedy the influential endorsement of one of the country's most prominent civil rights leaders.
"This man was willing to wipe the tears from my daughter[-in-law]'s eyes,” King said. "I’ve got a suitcase of votes, and I’m going to take them to Mr. Kennedy."
The news of the Kennedy brothers' actions spread quickly among the African-American community, in large part because of the Kennedy campaign's efforts.
"The Kennedy campaign made sure they got something, what was called the Blue Bomb, this pamphlet where they advertised what Kennedy had done [for King], and made sure that on the eve of the election, the final Sunday of the campaign, this was distributed at black churches all around the country," Nick Bryant, author of “The Bystander: John F. Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality,” told America Tonight.
But the news gained little traction elsewhere. "I think it slipped past white America," Bryant added. "They had no idea this had happened. Knew little or nothing about it. It was in the back pages of The New York Times."
Kennedy went on to win more than 70 percent of African-American votes across the country, giving him him the competitive advantage he needed in important swing states like Illinois, Michigan and South Carolina, and an 84-vote electoral victory.
"It is amazing that Jack Kennedy won the presidency," Perry said. "He did only by a whisker in the popular vote."
A slow start
When he took office, Kennedy faced the glare of a Congress stacked with leaders vehemently opposed to some of the civil rights causes he had supported while campaigning.
"It's almost impossible today to go back more than 50 years and think about a South, think about a nation really, but think primarily about a South that is racist virtually to its political core," said John Seigenthaler, who served as an aide to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. "And so the president comes into all of this aware that every, every influential congressional committee, particularly in the House, dominated by Southern segregationist member of Congress, [was] racist."
Kennedy didn't immediately push for some of the civil rights issues – like housing segregation, for instance – that he had touted on the campaign trail.
"He said while he was running for office he could eliminate housing segregation with the stroke of a pen," 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."
In November 1962, Kennedy did issue an executive order to end housing discrimination, but it was a watered-down version of what activists had wanted. For his first two years in office, Kennedy ignored calls from civil rights leaders that he introduce civil rights legislation. Instead, he focused his efforts elsewhere.
"He worried about the rest of his domestic agenda in the United States Congress, which he thought would be bottled up if he completely upset the Southern segregationists right off the bat," Perry told America Tonight. "President Kennedy as a pragmatist realized that he would do more damage to his presidency and perhaps his re-election bid in 1964 if he moved too quickly and too courageously on civil rights."
Author, "The Bystander"
Rather than raising civil rights issues publicly during that time, Kennedy addressed them on a case-by-case basis, when violence escalated to a point at which he was forced to respond.
Though the civil rights movement burned on, it wasn't until the spring of 1961 that the Kennedy administration was compelled to act.
In May, a group known as the Congress of Racial Equality began organizing integrated buses traveling from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans to protest against segregation in interstate transportation. The Freedom Riders, as they became known, quickly came under attack. They were arrested in North Carolina and beaten in South Carolina. In Alabama, the violence reached new heights.
At first, President Kennedy didn't want to interfere.
"The Kennedys saw the Freedom Rides as really a no-win situation for them politically," Perry said. "The right wing would accuse them of interference in the South. And the left wing would accuse them of not doing enough to help the cause of civil rights."
The president also feared that embarrassing headlines about the violence could undermine his Cold War strategy ahead of a summit in Vienna with Soviet premier Nikita Kruschev.
"Can't you get your goddamned friends off those buses?" the president complained to a Justice Department official with ties to the movement. "Stop them."
But as the violence escalated, the pressure to act mounted. On May 14, 1961, angry white mobs fire-bombed one of the buses in rural Alabama. The riders were able to escape only because an explosion forced the mob to retreat.
"It was only when those awful scenes of violence against the Freedom Riders took place that the Kennedy brothers did actually try and do something to intervene," Bryant said.
Robert Kennedy, then the attorney general, sent aide Seigenthaler to Birmingham, Ala., to help the besieged Freedom Riders.
"In that moment, a half dozen men turned me around and said, ‘Who are you, what are you?’" said Seigenthaler about being confronted by a mob. "And I said, ‘Get back, I'm from the federal government.’ And one of them hit me over the head right there with a pipe. And I had never been knocked unconscious before."
On May 21, 1961, Robert Kennedy sent federal marshals to protect the Freedom Riders during a siege in Montgomery, Ala. But even armed marshals couldn't stop the violence.
"The president and the attorney general, their best hope was that the Freedom Rides would end,” Seigenthaler said. “There was no way to protect them."
Eight days later, Robert Kennedy encouraged the Interstate Commerce Commission to adopt "stringent regulations" to ban segregation on interstate buses. The rides and violence continued, until the commerce commission's regulations ending segregation took effect in November.
Integrating Ole Miss
In the fall of 1962, Oxford, Miss., became the battleground for desegregation efforts, once again testing President Kennedy’s commitment to civil rights.
African-American James Meredith had been trying to enroll at the all-white University of Mississippi, better known as "Ole Miss." The federal government backed his right to do so, but the state of Mississippi refused, and Ross Barnett, the governor, vowed to block Meredith from the institution.
"This was an opportunity for [Kennedy] to be really clear-cut, really tough, to say, 'There's a federal court order in place and we are absolutely determined that it should be enforced,’" Bryant told America Tonight. "But what actually happened, they kept on negotiating these deals where James Meredith would be admitted on a certain day, and at the last minute, Ross Barnett would renege on that deal."
Phone calls between President Kennedy, Attorney Gen. Robert Kennedy and Gov. Barnett failed to produce a solution, prolonging the conflict. When Meredith once again tried to register for classes, this time with federal marshals at his sides, rioting erupted on campus and two people were killed. It was only then that President Kennedy sent federal troops to the campus and Meredith was able to attend class.
"My contention would be that because he seemed to be endlessly flexible, because he seemed to be willing to constantly negotiate,” Bryant said. "Those Southerners who were protesting that night believed that the Kennedy administration really wasn't determined to get James Meredith on campus."
The boiling point
It wasn’t until violence in Birmingham, Ala., hit a boiling point during the summer of 1963, that Kennedy would move decisively on the issue.
In April 1963, civil rights activists had started campaign in the city that included boycotts, lunch counter sit-ins and protests at city hall. In early May, 1,000 children joined the protests, and hundreds of them were arrested. It did not take long for police to turn high-pressure hoses and dogs on them, resulting in haunting images that circulated in the media and triggered national outrage.
"I know from JFK's reaction to the hoses in Birmingham and the children being washed down the street, that he was horrified by this," Bond told America Tonight. "He thought that this was not the way things ought to be. And that I think pushed him a little bit."
By June 1963, he was ready to act. Earlier in the year, Kennedy had put forth a civil rights bill that left out the key concern of integrating public facilities. He gave the bill little backing, and it ultimately floundered. But this time would be different. Kennedy worked feverishly to craft a speech that would be the groundwork for new legislation.
"The president personally worked on that speech almost until it was time to go on television and make the announcement," Seigenthaler remembered.
"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," he read.
"If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he can not 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? Who among us would be content with the counsels of patience and delay?"
The speech, in which he also announced he would be sending comprehensive civil rights legislation to Congress, struck a chord.
"I remember saying that I never thought that the president of the United States say these things in this kind of way," Bond said. "I was so happy. This was the strongest speech every made by an American president on civil rights to my knowledge, up until that moment. It was just wonderful."
For Kennedy, the speech was unique because it framed civil rights as a moral issue.
"It was much like Lincoln turning 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 would not live to see the civil rights reform that would pass the next year, but his 1963 speech would go down in history.
But to some, Kennedy was slow to act, and undeserving of the mantle he was given.
"He could have spoken out when he didn’t. When he did speak out it was wonderful and should have shown him how great he could have been," Bond said. "But for reasons we are not really sure of, he choose not to do so. And as a consequence, he probably slowed things to some pace, when could have happened at a quicker pace.”