Words Matter


President John F. Kennedy on Civil Rights

Season 4, Ep. 21

This week we highlight presidential leadership and one of the most important civil rights speeches ever delivered by a sitting American president.

By June of 1963, John F. Kennedy has been president for nearly two and a half years.

While Kennedy had long privately expressed his deep moral objections to the treatment of black people in American society and indicated support for New federal legislation. 

His public comments ranged from cautious moderate criticism to a 1950s version of “both sides-ism” but were mostly nonexistent.

In June of 1963, however the man and the moment met.

Alabama Governor George Wallace’s staged photo op defiance of federal law by standing in the school house doorway had lasted less than 90 minutes. 

On June 11th 1963 two black students were peaceful enrolled at the University of Alabama under the protection of a federalized Alabama National Guard commanded by US Marshals under the direction of the Department of Justice and the Attorney General of the United States.

Kennedy’s advisors recommended and Fully expected that the president would NOT address the American people that evening. 

With a little less than 18 months until to the 1964 elections, the President’s legislative agenda and his political future depended upon the votes Southern Democrats in Congress and those of their politically unforgiving constituents. 

The President had other ideas. Kennedy saw a way to exercise moral leader on an issue where he had to that point failed. He would request Network Television airtime to address the nation on the issue of civil rights. 

The facts and statistics on racial inequality in the United States described by President Kennedy to the American people that evening had even never been acknowledged by a President before - much less spoken in such a detailed and direct language. 

In a telegram to the White House after watching the President’s remarks in Atlanta with other civil rights leaders, the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr. described the address as ONE OF THE MOST ELOQUENT, PROFOUND,AND UNEQUIVOCAL PLEAS FOR JUSTICE AND FREEDOM OF ALL MEN, EVER MADE BY ANY PRESIDENT.

Dr King knew that Kennedy was moved by his now famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” - written just weeks before. 

To President Kennedy and many Americans Dr. King’s letter was more than than a spirited defense of civil disobedience. It was an indictment of white indifference.

As you listen to the speech, you will hear Kennedy echoing King’s “Letter”

The President rejects the idea that Black Americans should have to wait for equality. "Who among us," Kennedy asks the American people, "would then be content with counsels of patience and delay?"

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