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Presidential Words Matter: John F. Kennedy on Civil Rights

Season 3, Ep. 22

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 definance 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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Our guest today served as the 37thDeputy Attorney Generalof the United States from April 2017 until May 2019. Prior to his appointment, he served as aUnited States Attorneyfor theDistrict of Maryland. At the time of his confirmation as Deputy Attorney General on April 25, 2017, he was the nation's longest-serving U.S. Attorney. The Senate approved his nomination by a vote of 94-6.We are so excited to announce that Words Matter Media is partnering with CAFE Studios to bring you a new season of the Words Matter podcast. CAFE strives to inform its listeners about the most critical issues of the day.Each week, Katie and Joe will do their best to bring facts and context to the often fraught political conversations that dominate our national discourse.They’ll be speaking with an array of guests, including people who have made a great impact on American politics or who make it their business to understand what’s really happening in Washington.For now, you can continue to listen to episodes of Words Matter for free.In the coming weeks the show will be available exclusively to members of CAFÉ Insider.We hope you’ll consider joining the Insider community, whose members enjoy a collection of podcasts created for engaged citizens around the world.You can head to https://cafe.com/offer/words-matter/ to get 2 free weeks of membership.You’ll get access to all future episodes of Words Matter and other exclusive content including the Insider podcast co-hosted by Preet Bharara, former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York and Anne Milgram, former Attorney General of New Jersey, along with much more excusive content. https://cafe.com/offer/words-matter/