Violence Transformed JFK's Civil Rights Push

Nov 14, 2013
Originally published on November 11, 2013 3:22 pm

As the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy approaches, we’ve been looking back on the legacy of the 35th president.

The 1960s, the civil rights movement and JFK’s presidency are irrevocably linked. It was during a particularly turbulent time in that decade that Kennedy went on television to address the nation and propose passage of civil rights legislation.

He didn’t live to see it happen.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Delores Handy of WBUR looks at JFK and the civil rights movement.

Are you old enough to have memories of the Kennedy assassination? Share them in the comments or on our Facebook page.


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As the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy approaches, we've been looking back on the legacy of the 35th president. Right now we're going to take a look at his civil rights legacy. It was during a particularly turbulent time in the 1960s that Kennedy went on TV to address the nation and propose passage of civil rights legislation. He didn't live to see it happen.

From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, WBUR's Delores Handy has our story.

DELORES HANDY, BYLINE: Senator John F. Kennedy launched his presidential campaign in 1960 with a promise of a new frontier and blistering criticism of the outgoing Eisenhower administration.


HANDY: The civil rights movement was increasingly visible, and there was competition for the black vote. The Democrats adopted a strong civil rights plank as part of their party platform, but the dynamics of the election changed because of a series of phone calls that Kennedy made after the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested in Georgia.

ANDREW YOUNG: He was arrested in Atlanta, and he was in a picket line with students. They separated him from the students.

HANDY: Andrew Young was executive vice president of Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

YOUNG: In the middle of the night, they put him in chains in the back of a paddy wagon with nobody but him and a German shepherd. And they drove 300 miles from Atlanta to Reidsville penitentiary. And nobody knew where he was for two or three days. And Mrs. King was desperate. He was - I think that was probably the hardest time in his life.

HANDY: On October 27, in the waning days of the 1960 presidential campaign, King walked out of that prison.


HANDY: Young says that King's father, a prominent Baptist minister in Atlanta - fondly called Daddy King - launched a big Kennedy movement in black churches across the country.

YOUNG: And then Daddy King said, I was having trouble with this Catholic boy, but we've never had anybody step up to say a word for us before. So I'm going to throw all my votes to him.

HANDY: Kennedy won that election by less than one-half of 1 percent of the popular vote. But once Kennedy was in office, initially there was very little policy progress on civil rights. The relationship between the president and civil rights leaders suffered.

YOUNG: We always felt that this was somebody whose heart and head was in the right place. But we knew that growing up in Massachusetts, he probably had not had any experiences with black people and he didn't understand the South.


HANDY: Scenes from the South. The everyday realities of inequities were making their way to the evening news on a regular basis - the Birmingham campaign, children jailed, firefighters turning their powerful water hoses on children as they marched, police dogs attacking children. Those were the images making their way into homes across America and to countries around the world.


HANDY: Former Pennsylvania Senator Harris Wofford was Kennedy's special assistant for civil rights.

HARRIS WOFFORD: Kennedy, on all the major civil rights steps, had to be very careful in trying to measure whether the backlash to it would do more harm than the good of going forward. And that's why the decision to go forward before he died was a very important one that made history.

HANDY: On June 11, 1963, the day that Alabama Governor George Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama as black students arrived to enroll, the president went on nationwide television with his strongest statement yet on civil rights, casting it as a moral issue as old as the Scriptures.


HANDY: Kennedy followed his speech by introducing to Congress a comprehensive civil rights bill. Then came the matter of trying to get it through Congress. Here's a portion of a phone call with Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana.


HANDY: As the civil rights bill was filibustered in Congress, King and other civil rights leaders pushed ahead with plans for a march on Washington, despite the president's concerns. King's associate Andrew Young.

YOUNG: We were with him and he was with us. It was a team spiritually and intellectually, but it never became a partnership. Dr. King was always reluctant because he always felt that any time somebody from the Kennedys contacted him, they were trying to get him not to do something.

HANDY: The march went ahead as planned, becoming the largest demonstration ever in the nation's capital. Afterwards, the leaders of the march met with the president at the White House. Andrew Young remembers Kennedy being relieved by how well the march went. But that didn't ease the tensions with the director of the FBI. The president was caught in the middle.

YOUNG: He was being fed all kinds of misinformation by J. Edgar Hoover. He did everything he could to undermine our efforts with the president and in the Congress and with the press.

HANDY: Less than three months later, the president was killed, riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. Longtime Boston education activist Jean McGuire will never forget that day.

JEAN MCGUIRE: We cried. I can remember we all cried. They killed the president. My mother, we sat in the kitchen and we cried. They killed the president. That meant they would kill us too. He was - we saw him as a protector.

HANDY: Kennedy's civil rights legislation stalled in Congress. His vice president, Lyndon Johnson of Texas, would spend the next eight months battling other Southern politicians to push it through. Many say Johnson did what Kennedy could not do. Still, Kennedy to this day remains one of the most popular public figures of his time, especially with African-Americans. Melvin Miller is publisher of the Boston weekly newspaper the Bay State Banner.

MELVIN MILLER: Because I think the spirit of freedom and openness was genuine. I don't think it was just a political ploy. I think he understood the viciousness of the kind of racial discrimination that we practiced in the U.S., and he definitely wanted to get rid of it.

HANDY: At the JFK Presidential Library in Dorchester, Barbara Jackson, a visitor from Chicago, is one of the hundreds of thousands of people visiting the library this year.

BARBARA JACKSON: I think at the time it felt very devastating, like we wouldn't be able to make the progress that we were hoping for. But people didn't give up, and so we see that there has been some progress. Still a lot work to do, lots and lots of work to do.

HANDY: Even as an African-American now holds the nation's highest office.

HOBSON: That report from WBUR's Delores Handy.



And as we get ready for the 22nd, we've been asking if you were here, where were you on that day 50 years ago? Ginger Maddox(ph) writes, Jeremy: Clear as a bell I remember it. Sophomore in high school. It came on the PA.

Another writes: Tenth grade. Someone brought a note into Spanish class. Where were you?

HOBSON: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.

YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.