In his campaign for president, Kennedy promised executive, moral, and legislative leadership to combat racial discrimination. After being elected and looking at the congressional situation, he decided to forgo legislative leadership, at least for the time being. But he did exercise executive and some moral leadership in his first year as president. He appointed an unprecedented number of blacks to office, including Thurgood Marshall, who became a federal judge. Marshall was the nation's preeminent civil rights lawyer and had directed the Legal Defense Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He had successfully argued the historic Brown case, among others, before the Supreme Court. Kennedy also took significant measures against racial discrimination in federal employment and among federal contractors. He was more accessible to civil rights leaders than his predecessors had been and, in contrast to Eisenhower, actually endorsed the Brown decision.
Under Attorney General Robert Kennedy, his brother, the Justice Department stepped up enforcement of existing voting rights laws, and the administration encouraged the establishment of the Voter Education Project, which in time registered hundreds of thousands of blacks to vote in the South. Robert Kennedy himself went into the heart of the South to endorse school desegregation. Behind the scenes, the Justice Department endeavored to bring about voluntary and peaceful compliance with court-ordered desegregation.
The administration's symbolic and substantive expressions of support for progress in race relations encouraged the expansion of a preexisting civil rights movement. For the first time, many blacks felt they had real allies in the White House and the Justice Department. Yet participants in the movement, particularly those on the front lines in the South, were sometimes disappointed at certain restraints in the administration's assistance, such as its inability or lack of interest in providing them with federal protection from violence at the hands of local officials and vigilantes.
The Kennedys, for their part, were several times frustrated in their efforts to get state and local officials to carry out their legal responsibilities to obey court orders mandating desegregation of colleges or bus terminals. In May 1961 the administration sent federal marshals to Montgomery, Alabama, to protect Martin Luther King, Jr., the charismatic civil rights leader, from white mob violence during the "freedom rides," which were aimed at desegregating interstate bus transportation.
In September 1962 a long behind-the-scenes negotiation failed to secure Governor Ross Barnett's cooperation in ensuring the safety of James Meredith when he became the first black person to matriculate at the University of Mississippi. Kennedy hoped to avoid sending federal troops, which would stir hated memories of Reconstruction and cause a political backlash among white southerners. Again, federal marshals were sent instead. They performed bravely and with restraint in the face of an angry white mob but, in the end, had to be reinforced by federal troops. Afterward, President Kennedy privately regretted trusting Barnett and was sorry he had not sent in troops earlier, which might have prevented the two deaths that occurred. According to Sorensen, Kennedy also "wondered whether all that he had been taught and all that he had believed about the evils of Reconstruction were true."
In Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King, Jr., led massive demonstrations in the spring of 1963 against that city's segregated public accommodations and against employment discrimination. For a while, the demonstrators were decorously arrested and jailed, a tactic that had broken the back of a comparable campaign in Albany, Georgia, the previous year. But when children began to march in Birmingham, T. Eugene ("Bull") Connor, the police commissioner, changed his tactic to physical repulsion of the demonstrators. Dramatic news photographs and films of defenseless demonstrators being attacked by southern policemen, using vicious dogs, clubs, and fire hoses, appeared around the world. Kennedy sent representatives to the city to mediate the dispute, and he and members of his administration persuaded business executives whose companies had subsidiaries in Birmingham to bring pressure on their local executives to help achieve settlement. These efforts bore some fruit, but were repeatedly endangered by Ku Klux Klan activities, including the terrorist bombings of black homes and businesses, which in turn led to rioting by enraged blacks.
Meanwhile, another crisis brewed in the state, this one over the court-ordered desegregation of the University of Alabama. Governor George Wallace, who had won election as an adamant segregationist, threatened to cause a repetition of the University of Mississippi crisis. Behind the scenes, the Kennedys tried to reason with Wallace and organized business pressure against his causing a violent confrontation. Wallace had sworn to stand in the schoolhouse door to prevent desegregation, and as the day of decision neared, it was not completely clear what would happen if he did. Consequently, President Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard. The confrontation came on 11 June 1963. With cameras recording the moment, Wallace stood in the doorway but then stepped aside and let two black students enter the building to register. Wallace kept his defiance symbolic and fulfilled his responsibility to prevent violence as state and local police maintained security; the federal presence was quickly removed.
The events of 11 June gave President Kennedy an excellent moment to address the nation on civil rights. In a period of uncertainty, it seemed a rare instance of unambiguous federal success. The campaign to moderate Wallace's behavior had clearly worked. Although Kennedy had been speaking about civil rights in the previous weeks, he had not made a speech to the nation as a whole. He had already decided to seek broad new civil rights legislation, and, though its details were not complete, Kennedy decided to seize the moment and go on television that evening to address the nation. Sorensen did not even have time to complete writing the speech before Kennedy went on the air, and Kennedy had to extemporize the conclusion.
This time Kennedy unambiguously mounted the bully pulpit and talked about race relations more bluntly and movingly than any president before him. He said:
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. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot 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 then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?
Kennedy gave the threat of violence as a principal reason for taking immediate steps to secure black people their rights. Events in Birmingham and elsewhere had increased cries for equality and could not be prudently ignored. National legislation must be enacted, he said, "if we are to move this problem from the streets to the courts." In a sense, Kennedy's argument could be construed as conservative, for it sought to preserve the social fabric through the provision of a legal outlet. But many conservatives at the time preferred to leave the racial problem in the hands of local officials, even if that meant, as it often did, repression and resistance. Kennedy, on the other hand, believed that America faced a "moral crisis," which could not be "met by repressive police action." He wanted Congress, state and local governments, as well as private citizens, to resolve the crisis by removing its causes. Kennedy manifested a liberal's faith that government had the duty and the ability to correct social injustices.
As he had in the past, Kennedy marshaled economic justifications for eliminating racial discrimination, and he emphasized that the problem was national, not sectional, in scope (which was not only true but politically wise). Kennedy had long emphasized how racial injustices made this country look bad in the eyes of the world. But he argued that the intrinsic moral issue was more important than what the world thought of America:
We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is a land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes?
For Kennedy, this speech marked a turning point. Most of his advisers had cautioned against it, largely on political grounds. It would cost him the South and the 1964 election, some warned, or it would deadlock Congress. But Robert Kennedy, his most trusted adviser, had argued strongly in favor of a change. Until Birmingham, the administration had managed to stay abreast of, or slightly ahead of, the evolving pressures for the protection of civil rights. But with Birmingham, street demonstrations became a popular, dramatic, and successful tactic, and there were bound to be many more of them. An atmosphere was developing in which Kennedy could only weakly respond to events rather than shape and direct them. Kennedy did not want to find himself in a weak and defensive position when his personality and view of the presidency called for decisive leadership and a measure of control over events. "The situation was rapidly reaching a boil," Sorensen recalled, "which the President felt the federal government should not permit if it was to lead and not be swamped."
The speech also marked a turning point for the country, the beginning of the drive for passage of what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the most far-reaching legal instrumentality in the nation's Second Reconstruction. In the ensuing months, the White House became the focal point of efforts to pass this legislation, which in effect meant that Kennedy did succeed in gaining leadership on civil rights. Kennedy held an important and unprecedented series of meetings with groups of lawyers, religious leaders, businessmen, and labor leaders to enlist them as lobbyists for the legislation and to seek voluntary progress against discrimination. Kennedy never expected Congress to fall in line immediately and it did not.
A vital part of Kennedy's legislative strategy was to incorporate suggestions from Republicans so as to win their support for the legislation as a whole. By the time of Kennedy's death in November, this strategy had paid off in the House, resulting in a stronger bill than Kennedy originally submitted and excellent chances of passage. In the Senate, where a filibuster loomed, final passage was more remote, but Everett Dirksen, the Senate Republican leader, had privately promised that the legislation would be brought to a vote. In other words, the filibuster would not be allowed to kill the legislation.
What might have happened to the bill if Kennedy had not been assassinated is one of those things it is impossible to know. Some key participants in the legislative struggle later reflected that essentially the same goal would have been reached. It is possible that Kennedy's death improved the legislation's chances and strengthened it besides. Lyndon Johnson, his successor, immediately made the bill's enactment a memorial to Kennedy. His commitment to the legislation vividly demonstrated that Johnson, a Texan, had a national, not southern, perspective. The civil rights movement had come so far under Kennedy that it would have been politically dangerous for Johnson to have given up the fight, even if he had wanted to. The legislation as finally enacted covered public accommodations, employment, education, voting rights, and the administration of justice.