When John F. Kennedy became president in 1961, he inherited a country sharply divided along racial lines. The civil rights movement was gaining momentum, but Jim Crow laws and segregation were still the norm in many parts of the United States. Kennedy was committed to tackling this issue head-on during his time in office. The story of JFK and civil rights is the story of a president who used his power and influence to further the cause of equality and support the civil rights struggle.
Kennedy’s Early Commitment to Civil Rights
When most people think of Kennedy, they think of his time as president and his assassination. However, his commitment to civil rights and the fight against racial discrimination began long before he reached the White House.
In 1957, Kennedy was one of the members of Congress to sign a brief supporting the Little Rock Nine, a group of African American students who were trying to integrate into a newly desegregated school in Arkansas.
What did JFK do for the civil rights movement in the years to follow? When Senator Kennedy announced his candidacy for president in 1960, he immediately faced a significant challenge. Martin Luther King had been arrested and jailed in Alabama, and Kennedy was under pressure to take action. He responded by sending a telegram to the governor of Alabama, asking for King's release. The governor refused, so Kennedy dispatched his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to petition for King's release.
Following JFK’s civil rights timeline, we can see that he helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1960, which made it illegal to discriminate against voters based on race. During his presidential campaign, Senator Kennedy made it clear that he would continue to fight for civil rights, and after he was elected, he made good on his promise.
Presidency: the Challenges
When Kennedy took office in 1961, the Civil Rights Movement was already underway. Freedom Riders were challenging segregation in interstate travel, sit-ins were being held to desegregate lunch counters, and Freedom Summer was registering African American voters in Mississippi. Despite these efforts, the Kennedy administration was reluctant to take any action that would alienate southern voters.
After much pressure from movement leaders and activists, the administration began to take some steps to support the movement. As some of the Freedom Riders, including John Lewis, were brutally attacked by white mobs, Kennedy sent federal troops to protect them. The troops were dispatched once again in 1963 to protect demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama, sending a powerful message to Americans.
In that same year, Kennedy gave a historic speech supporting civil rights. In the speech, he called for an end to segregation and discrimination and encouraged Americans to live up to US ideals of liberty and justice.
JFK and the Civil Rights Act of 1964
JFK's civil rights speech was a significant turning point in the civil rights movement, and it helped to galvanize support for equality nationwide. This call to action helped spur the passage of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
Unfortunately, Kennedy could not see his vision for civil rights come to fruition. He was assassinated in November of 1963, and it fell to his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, to sign the Civil Rights Act into law.
Kennedy’s death did not stop the momentum of the civil rights movement. The impact of JFK's assassination on civil rights was quite different: it served as a rallying cry for those who were fighting for equality. After Kennedy's death, Congress passed several more laws to protect civil rights, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
Stance on the Civil Rights Movement
Kennedy believed that all people should be treated equally, regardless of race. He was an advocate for desegregation and a supporter of civil rights protests and their causes because it was a matter of justice and human rights. In one of JFK’s speeches on civil rights in 1963, he said: "We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. On the one hand, there is equal justice under the law; on the other hand, there is discrimination and oppression. We know what we must do, and we will do it."
Besides simply being a constitutional issue and a matter of administration, Kennedy believed that equality was a pre-given category guaranteed to every American by birth. His words and his active involvement in the civil rights movement demonstrated his belief.
The Kennedys and Civil Rights: a Family Legacy
JFK’s contribution to the civil rights movement has been widely known and debated. However, it is less known that the Kennedys had a long history of involvement in the civil rights movement. Many members of the Kennedy family have been outspoken advocates for civil rights. JFK's father, Joseph Kennedy, supported The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and helped fund their efforts, while his sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, was also involved in the civil rights movement. She worked with the NAACP and helped desegregate schools in the South.
Kennedy’s brother, Robert Kennedy, was also a supporter of civil rights. He worked as an attorney for the NAACP and helped secure funding for their operations. He collaborated with King and helped secure the passage of the bill of 1964. JFK's other sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founded the Special Olympics, which provides opportunities for people with disabilities to compete in athletic events.
Inspiring a New Generation To Fight for Civil Rights
Sixty-one years ago, John F. Kennedy became the youngest man ever elected president of the United States. Speaking of Kennedy and the civil rights movement, we cannot forget that he faced many challenges, both at home and abroad, during his presidency. Yet despite these challenges, he remained committed to his vision of a "city upon a hill" - an America that was tolerant, forward-thinking, and dedicated to pursuing justice.
Kennedy's speech, delivered in 1963, proposed legislation that would later become the Civil Rights Act. He interpreted civil rights as more than a constitutional issue but a moral one in his address.
His ideas still resonate today, inspiring a new generation of Americans to fight for civil rights. From the March on Washington to Black Lives Matter, Kennedy and the civil rights movement of that era continue to inspire civil rights activists worldwide.
More than half a century after his death, Kennedy’s legacy lives on through the nonprofit Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, by mobilizing human rights defenders to take action for social justice and human rights.