Print Print


Robert and Ethel Kennedy listen to a recording of JFK’s Civil Rights Speech on a trip to South Africa

George Corley Wallace surely stands as one of the twentieth century’s most pivotal and enigmatic figures. While arguments still rage about Wallace’s true nature, most historians would agree that the former Alabama Governor and presidential candidate was an astute and clever political operator. After James Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi under the protection of United States marshals, Wallace knew it would not be long before a similar attempt would be made at the last segregated state university–the University of Alabama.

When a federal court ordered Alabama to admit two African American students in the spring of 1963, Wallace probably replayed the Meredith admission in his mind. The situation in Mississippi had spiraled out of control in a wave of violence. A reporter and a local resident were shot to death, two hundred federal marshals and National Guard troops were injured, vehicles and buildings were burned, and a stolen fire engine and a bulldozer tried to force their way into the administration building. (See Ted Sorenson, Kennedy, p. 486) Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett had earned the enmity of the nation for his intransigence while at the same time doing little to appease his segregationist base.

Meanwhile, the Kennedy Administration was also planning for the inevitable confrontation at Alabama. In Mississippi, the Administration had relied on Barnett’s state police to keep order, but before the riot they disappeared without notice. Kennedy was not about to let the situation get out of hand again, initiating contacts with Alabama educators, editors, clergy, and business leaders. When the court issued its order, the President ordered troops at Fort Benning onboard helicopters so they could be flown to campus at the first sign of trouble.

Wallace needed a way to save face; Kennedy needed to prevent the violence. After a series of negotiations in which even Bobby Kennedy tried to reason with Wallace, the two sides had written the script for one of America’s most memorable pieces of political theater. Wallace would stand in the “schoolhouse door” symbolically blocking integration, delivering a typical Wallace in-your-face defiant torrent of words. Across from him, Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach would read the court order. Offstage, the students would register.

Katzenbach even arranged to place a podium opposite Wallace that he would use to deliver his speech. The podium showed how little the administration understood what they were up against, for it symbolized the federal government’s imperiousness, with the short, feisty Wallace taking on the role of the rebellious student or defiant defendant every classroom secretly admires and every courtroom drama places in a starring role.

Shortly after the little drama had played out, the two students were taken to their dormitories without incident. Kennedy then federalized the National Guard and three hours later the two students registered. George Corley Wallace got exactly what he wanted out of the confrontation. Historian Taylor Branch in his monumental Parting the Waters believes the confrontation:

Helped elevate Wallace from the marginal stature of a Ross Barnett to a Presidential candidate. His stand against Washington and do-gooder bureaucrats planted a conservative standard which, further rinsed of its racial content, came to dominate American politics for more than a generation. (p. 822)

That night, after both Wallace and Katzenbach had delivered Academy Award-level performances, John Fitzgerald Kennedy decided to appear on national television to address the American people about Civil Rights against the objections of some of his advisors. According to Branch, Burke Marshall remembered Robert Kennedy alone supported the idea. At six o’clock Kennedy ordered network time and gave speech writer Ted Sorenson some ideas. But that left little time to prepare one of the more important addresses of the Kennedy presidency. In his book on Kennedy, Sorenson writes:

Having assumed that the tranquil resolution at Tuscaloosa that afternoon made a speech unnecessary, I did not start a first draft until late in the afternoon or complete it until five minutes before he went on the air. There was no time for a redraft. “For the first time,” the President told me in my office afterward, “I thought I was going to have to go off the cuff.” He did, in fact, extemporize a heart felt conclusion. (p. 495)

Sorenson notes that in actuality the speech had been three years in the making, drawing on meetings with Civil Rights leaders, members of Congress and discussions in the administration. Sorenson writes of Kennedy’s evolution over this time, observing:

His assumption of the powers of the Presidency accelerated the change in his outlook. As a strong President, he had no intention of permitting Southern Governors and others to defy the courts and his office…

Above all he was motivated by a deep sense of justice and fair play. “I do not say that all men are equal in their ability, their character, or their motivation,” he declared more than once, “but I say they should be equal in their chance to develop their character, their motivation, and their ability. They should be given a fair chance to develop all the talents they have.” (p. 472)

When the camera lights turned on the night of June 11, 1963, they not only illuminated the President’s speech, but shone brightly on a problem that had been too long neglected. Those lights would reach into the back roads of Mississippi, the streets of Birmingham and into every American home.

Although Kennedy’s speech was not as dramatically extemporaneous as Harry Truman’s St. Louis speech, it was far from being a tightly prepared oration, which made it both more personal and more powerful. The President begins with a review of the day’s events. From this he quickly moves to a historical section, which ends with one of the sentences that many Americans can still recite from memory:

This Nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.

In his Let the Trumpet Sound, Stephen Oates points out that the phrase echoes one King often used “a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In the research I was able to do, I found no answer to the question of whether Kennedy consciously chose to echo King. King’s phrase was well-known at the time, which leads me to speculate that he and/or Sorenson intended it to resonate with King.

Kennedy reminds Americans that the nation is in the midst of a struggle to “promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free.” This leads him into a paragraph that uses the word “oughta” over and over again, to paint a picture of a truly free America. The word choice is interesting in that its informality helps reinforce that Kennedy speaks from the heart and also helps him connect with his listeners using a more conversational tone. Had he used the more formal “ought” it would have made the speech sound like he was lecturing the American people.

What strikes me as remarkable about this passage is how it evokes three cornerstones of Liberal America: social and economic justice, educational equity, and voting rights.

It oughta be possible, therefore, for American students of any color to attend any public institution they select without having to be backed up by troops. It oughta to be possible for American consumers of any color to receive equal service in places of public accommodation, such as hotels and restaurants and theaters and retail stores, without being forced to resort to demonstrations in the street, and it oughta be possible for American citizens of any color to register and to vote in a free election without interference or fear of reprisal. It oughta to be possible, in short, for every American to enjoy the privileges of being American without regard to his race or his color.

According to Sorenson, the paragraph which follows was used by Kennedy in the television debates with Richard Nixon. It consists of facts about the realities of life in America for a “Negro Baby,” statistics that came to Kennedy from Civil Rights leaders. That Sorenson would borrow this passage for a speech made on short notice would not be unusual, but the interesting part about it is that three years after Kennedy first uttered its phrases, little had changed: the chances of completing college, of becoming unemployed, of life expectancy and lifetime earnings. More important, this marks the first time an American president would tell the American people the facts about racial inequality.

It seems fitting that these statistics should be followed by the most important and quoted section of the speech. Today the beginning of this section might seem tame, but in 1963, most Americans still regarded racial injustice as a “Southern problem.” It would have been easy for the President to take a similar perspective but instead he reminds those watching on television that “this is not a sectional issue.”

Nor is this a partisan issue. In a time of domestic crisis men of good will and generosity should be able to unite regardless of party or politics. This is not even a legal or legislative issue alone. It is better to settle these matters in the courts than on the streets, and new laws are needed at every level, but law alone cannot make men see right. We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.

The status of John F. Kennedy has diminished since Sorenson wrote his laudatory biography while the memory of Camelot was still fresh. Yet this paragraph certainly ranks among the great pieces of rhetoric uttered by any American president. If we remember the moment, and how little time Kennedy had to prepare the speech, those words speak not merely of memorable rhetoric but of the moral values that drove it. “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue.” Even in these days when the media tell us “moral values” were the voters’ concern in 2004, what politician has sought to frame equality as a moral issue?

Kennedy also is not content to frame Civil Rights as a moral issue, he asks each American to imagine what life would be like should the color of their skin suddenly change from white to black.

Who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay? One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.

Having framed the issue, Kennedy offers his solutions, first in general terms and then specifically outlining the provisions of the Civil Rights Bill his speech was designed to showcase.

We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and a people. It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is a time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives.

The original provisions of that bill included the right to be served in all public facilities, an end to segregation in public education, and greater protection for the right to vote.

The ending to the speech begins with a summons to American greatness not unlike that in Kennedy’s Inaugural Address.

This is one country. It has become one country because all of us and all the people who came here had an equal chance to develop their talents. We cannot say to ten percent of the population that you can’t have that right; that your children cannot have the chance to develop whatever talents they have; that the only way that they are going to get their rights is to go in the street and demonstrate. I think we owe them and we owe ourselves a better country than that.

After the speech Martin Luther King sent the President a telegram:


The segregationists would answer in their own way. The day after the speech Medgar Evers was returning home from his voter registration work for the NAACP. The web site Africa Within describes what happened next:

As he left his car with a handful of t-shirts that read “Jim Crow Must Go,” he was shot in the back. His wife and children, who had been waiting up for him, found him bleeding to death on the doorstep. “I opened the door, and there was Medgar at the steps, face down in blood,” Myrlie Evers remembered in People magazine. “The children ran out and were shouting, `Daddy, get up!'”

Civil Rights worker Fannie Lou Hamer was in jail when Kennedy delivered his speech and Medgar Evers was murdered, recovering from a brutal beating she had received in a Mississippi jail. In the 1964 credentials fight over the Mississippi delegation she would tell her story on national television. It would rivet the nation.

By then John Kennedy was dead. It would take until 1965 for all the proposals he had made in his Civil Rights speech to become law. Shortly after Kennedy’s death Martin Luther King said that in some ways it was a blessing for Civil Rights.

I’m convinced had he lived, there would have been continued delays and attempts to evade it at every point and water down every point. But I think his memory and the fact he stood up for this civil rights bill will cause many people to see the necessity for working passionately. (Branch, p. 922)

King did not know when he said this that his phone conversations were being wire-tapped. Taylor Branch believes:

The reaction to Kennedy’s assassination pushed deep enough and wide enough in the high ground of political emotion to enable the movement to institutionalize its major gains before receding. (p. 922)

Branch’s assessment of Kennedy’s assassination also might apply to principles that run through Democratic Party leaders from William Jennings Bryan to Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Roosevelt to Harry Truman. John Kennedy’s Civil Rights speech aimed to fill in the one gaping and inexcusable hole in Bryan, Wilson, Roosevelt and Truman: their ignoring–even disdain for–Civil Rights for people of color. Yet as King rightly pointed out (and Sorenson indirectly confirms), the Kennedy administration’s support remained lukewarm.

Since 1963, the legacy of Bryan, Wilson, Roosevelt and Truman has had a diminishing influence on the Party. In the years following the passage of the Civil Rights legislation, virtually no Democratic nominee or president has seen fit to uphold the legacy of the four Democratic Party leaders and fewer still have directly invoked their names or words. Now “triangulation” dominates the Democrats and triangulation is something John F. Kennedy pioneered.

The speech itself, as King recognized, deserves its place in history. The picture at the head of this post symbolizes that importance. Robert and Ethel Kennedy listen to a recording of his brother’s Civil Rights speech during a visit to South Africa in June 1966. Kennedy and a South African tribal leader lean over a record player, listening intently.

In the end JFK stands as an important transition from the Democratic legacy to the New Democrats, from ideology to triangulation. That the four leaders who best personified the legacy all used triangulation as a strategy goes without saying, but it did not rise to the level of a political philosophy as it has today.

Meanwhile the necessity for working passionately continues. Last summer, Republicans in Congress– most of them Southerners–tried to block an attempt to renew the Voting Rights Act. That four score and three years after John Fitzgerald Kennedy made his Civil Rights speech, Republicans would brazenly move to gut it says all you need to know about why I term the present philosophy of the Republican Party the Counterrevolution.

The renewal of the Voting Rights Act was named after Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks and Fannie Lou Hamer. Yet Fannie Lou Hamer died poor and largely forgotten in 1977. The words on her tombstone still reverberate almost half a century after John Kennedy proclaimed equal rights a “moral issue.”

I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.

NOTE: You should also listen to and view Kennedy’s speech.

Print Print