JFK’s civil rights leadership still lights a path for our fractured country

The Civil Rights Act was a historic achievement with far-reaching impact, yet racial injustices remained beyond its reach.

By Patricia Sullivan

Dallas Morning News

Nov 28, 2021 CST

“No American president up to this time has dealt so forthrightly and courageously with civil rights as the late John F. Kennedy,” wrote Benjamin J. Mays, educator and mentor to Martin Luther King Jr., in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination.

Mays’ words counter how most historians have assessed JFK’s presidency during the peak years of the civil rights movement. Kennedy has been described as a bystander, portrayed as a president who moved only when forced by the rush of events.

In researching a recent book on race and politics in the 1960s, I took a fresh look at JFK. At a time when nationwide protests have prompted a racial reckoning in the United States unlike any since the 1960s, Kennedy’s capacity and willingness to respond to the demands and opportunities created by the civil rights movement is striking.

A little-known meeting between Thurgood Marshall and the young presidential contender in the spring of 1960 is revealing. Kennedy had invited the director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund for lunch in his Senate office; Marshall ended up staying all afternoon. In his position with the NAACP, Marshall was not able to publicly endorse a candidate, but this meeting was not about that.

They had what Marshall described as a “frank discussion.” Kennedy “knew all the problems” concerning voting and registration in the South and had “a full grasp of the school situation.” By the end of the afternoon, Marshall said, “I had no doubt at all that he was committed to the general principles involving civil rights — the equality of all Americans.” He was convinced that Kennedy “would put that above the normal leanings of a candidate.”

JFK’s selection of Robert Kennedy to serve as attorney general signaled his awareness of the challenges and opportunities raised by the mass protests that grew from the sit-ins, and how he saw his role as president. Speaking

specifically of race and civil rights, JFK told his brother that he needed someone he could rely on completely. “I want someone who is going to be strong, who will join me in taking whatever risks … who will deal with the problem honestly. We’re going to have to change the climate in this country.”

With Democrats holding barely a majority in Congress, and powerful Southern Democrats dominating key committees, prospects for strong civil rights legislation were nil. The Justice Department moved aggressively to enforce court ordered school desegregation and voting rights laws, and the department faced a wall of state defiance and mob violence. It took 25,000 federal troops to restore order during the enrollment of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi in the fall of 1962, the first black student to attend the university. More than 1,000 people rioted, causing two deaths and several hundred injuries.

Kennedy and his team found creative ways to meet some of the most egregious injustices. In Prince Edward County in Virginia, 1,700 Black students were without schooling after the county closed the public schools and established private schools for white students rather than desegregate. While an NAACP case challenging this action made its way to the Supreme Court, JFK told his brother to find a way for the federal government to help the children of Prince Edward County, “so long as it is remotely legal or possible.”

Robert Kennedy led fundraising and organizing support for the Prince Edward Free School. It opened in the fall of 1963, providing schools for Black children and any white students who wished to attend.

In May 1963, Birmingham, Ala., marked a breaking point and an opening. The widely publicized police attacks on young Black protesters with dogs and high-pressure fire hoses ignited street demonstrations across the nation. President Kennedy seized the opportunity to introduce major civil rights legislation.

Nearly all of JFK’s top aides were against introducing a civil rights bill. Vice President Lyndon Johnson advised against the bill, warning it could not pass and would only cause trouble. Burke Marshall, assistant attorney general for civil rights, recalled, “the conclusive voice for a civil rights bill was Robert Kennedy. … I don’t think anyone else, except the president himself, felt that way on the issue.”

On June 11, after a daylong showdown between the Kennedy administration and Alabama Gov. George Wallace, culminating in the admission of two African American students to the University of Alabama, JFK decided to address the American people. Together, he and his brother hastily outlined

what the president would say just minutes before he went before the television cameras. The speech distilled what they had experienced and learned over the previous two and a half years.

Racial discrimination is not “a sectional issue,” but a condition that existed “in every city, every state of the Union,” the president began.

Toward the end of his comments, he declared, “Now the time has come for the nation to fulfill its promises. … The fires of frustration and discord are burning in every city, North and South, where legal remedies are not at hand.” These were, the president emphasized, manifestations of a moral crisis that could not be resolved “by repressive police action, by tokenism, or by deploring the facts.” This was a time for action — in Congress, in state and local government and “above all, in all of our daily lives.”

In concluding, the president announced that he would ask Congress to act and “to make a commitment it has not fully made in this century to the proposition that race has no place in American life or law.”

During a tumultuous summer of racial clashes, the Kennedy team enlisted the support of key Republicans, essential for defeating a Southern filibuster, and crafted a strong bill — a high-wire political act, balancing Republican support and liberal demands.

On Nov. 20, 1963, a mere two days before JFK was assassinated in Dallas, the House Judiciary voted out the president’s civil rights bill. That basic bill, with sustained bipartisan support, would ultimately defeat a filibuster and be signed into law the following July by Lyndon Johnson.

The Civil Rights Act was a historic achievement with far-reaching impact. Yet legislation alone could not remedy racial inequities and injustices rooted in American life. Robert Kennedy along with Martin Luther King Jr. and others tackled these deeper challenges as urban rebellions sparked by abusive policing and desperate conditions marked the struggle for freedom and justice in a post-civil rights era — one that continues to this day.

“I think we might be a very different country if we had not had so many assassinations,” James Baldwin told an interviewer in 1970. He said, “you know black people had a very different feeling toward government when JFK and Bobby were alive than we’ve had since.” He noted a distinctive quality the brothers shared: “Both had minds that could be reached.”

In a racially and politically fractured country, the nature of John F. Kennedy’s leadership remains relevant to the struggle to sustain the promise of American democracy.

Patricia Sullivan is a history professor at the University of South Carolina and the author of Justice Rising: Robert Kennedy’s America in Black and White. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.