At least part of the reason for John Kennedy’s election to the presidency was due to the way he promised to get equal rights for black Americans.
Once he assumed office, though, he quarreled with his brother, Robert, who was attorney general. Robert wanted to avoid becoming too involved in such a politically divisive fight.
In the southern states, violent conflict spurred on by the struggle for black civil rights forced Kennedy’s hand. Nevertheless, he still stopped short of strengthening civil rights legislation in the south as he was not prepared to ire the powerful conservatives and risk his domestic program being blocked.
Civil Rights Movement on the Rise
The African American equal rights movement had been gaining momentum for years by this stage.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that segregating educational facilities was inherently unequal.
After Emmett Till, an African American teen from Chicago was savagely murdered in Mississippi in the summer of 1955, his mother opted for an open casket in order to showcase what had been done to her son. This prompted the involvement of people who were previously sitting and watching this struggle for justice unfold in silence.
Just a few months after this came the world-famous incident when Rosa Parks, a seamstress, refused to move to the back of a bus and refused to assume the position mandated for African Americans. When she was arrested, Martin Luther King Jr. spearheaded a boycott of buses in Montgomery, Alabama.
Strong Opposition Mounts
As supports of this budding equal rights movement became more vocal and increased their activism, so the opposition to this movement also strengthened.
Mississippi saw white supremacist Citizens’ Councils springing up. When a black woman, Autherine Lucy, attempted to enroll at the University of Alabama in 1956, she was almost lynched by an angry mob.
George Wallace, made a failed bid for governor in Alabama in 1958 after being backed by the NAACP while his victorious opponent was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. Wallace’s key takeaway was needing to take a harder line against integration, an attitude he used to win his bid in 1962.
The Election of 1960
When John Kennedy met Richard Nixon in 1960 to debate the presidential campaign, the civil rights issue was impossible to ignore. While both candidates were openly sympathetic to the African American struggle, no concrete solution was unearthed.
Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested during this campaign for an Atlanta sit-in. He was subsequently sentenced to four months of hard labor. Luther King’s friends were concerned he would be lynched in prison. Kennedy called to offer his sympathy to Mrs. King, while his brother called a Georgian judge who released King on bail a few days after.
While this incident garnered little attention in the mainstream media, the African American community was fully informed.
Martin Luther King Sr., publicly switched his allegiance from Nixon to Kennedy.
The black vote was instrumental in the swing states that Kennedy carried.
Getting Reluctantly Involved
Although the African American vote was a key factor in Kennedy getting into office, he was slow to get involved in the struggle proper once he was installed.
The Kennedy’s hand was forced when members of the Congress of Racial Equality staged a protest in New Orleans against the way interstate transportation was segregated. These so-called Freedom Riders were attacked by enraged mobs in Montgomery, Alabama. Federal marshals were promptly dispatched to the scene by Robert Kennedy.
Sitting on the Fence
Although given no choice but to react in favor of civil rights, the Kennedy brothers continued to resist fully committing to this issue.
Despite this, Kennedy still considered that he had done more for African Americans than any president before him. This was still not viewed as enough, though.
The Early 60s
As racial tensions continued simmering, President Kennedy reacted in 1962. He sent U.S. marshals to ensure that James Meredith, an African American, was admitted to the University of Mississippi.
These marshals clashed with violent segregationists resulting in two deaths and multiple injuries.
When Kennedy submitted a civil rights bill in February 1963, he did little to support this bill and it failed to gain traction in Congress.
Following an outbreak of racial violence in May, 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama, JFK understood that the time was right for a broader civil rights bill despite his advisers telling him he was making an egregious political mistake. Kennedy instead followed the advice of his brother, Robert, who assured him that the future of the U.S. was at stake and that he should push on with the bill.
A Pivotal Speech
President Kennedy addressed the nation on June 11, 1963. This was the same day that two black students were denied entry to the University of Alabama by Governor George Wallace.
Kennedy asked the nation to support his civil rights bills on the grounds it was a moral issue.
Victory at Last
Kennedy presented a most sweeping civil rights legislation to Congress just a few weeks later despite a Gallup poll showing half the nation felt this push toward integration was too fast. Kennedy responded that “change always disturbs”.
Two months later, John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
The bill he presented was pushed through then signed into law in 1964 by his successor, Lyndon Johnson.