The Day President Kennedy Embraced Civil Rights—and the Story Behind It

50 years ago today, the president gave his now-famous Civil Rights Address. But it was Martin Luther King Jr. and the Birmingham protesters who deserved the credit.
John F. Kennedy delivering the Civil Rights Address (Wikimedia Commons)

"Can you believe that white man not only stepped up to the plate, he hit it over the fence!" That was Martin Luther King, Jr.'s private verdict on President John F. Kennedy's famous Civil Rights Address, delivered fifty years ago on June 11, 1963.

If King's elation made sense, so did his incredulity. Kennedy had hardly been a beacon of moral resolve on civil rights. It required the Birmingham civil rights movement -- and the tough-minded theory of social change that King spelled out in the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" -- to provoke his speech into being. And once pushed into taking a stand with the address, Kennedy and his speechwriter Theodore Sorensen filled it with rhetoric often remarkably similar to King's. Though the address came, ostensibly, in response to a different event -- the fight over the integration at the University of Alabama -- it was full of echoes of "Letter from Birmingham Jail." In a powerful sense, King and the movement were the authors of the president's oratory.

The speech was a dramatic moment in a season jammed with dramatic events, as America staggered toward non-racial democracy. In his fiery inaugural speech in January of 1963, the new governor of Alabama, George Wallace had pledged, "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." In defiance of Wallace, King and the local movement launched civil rights protests in April in the furiously racist city of Birmingham. With the movement faltering, King decided to violate an injunction banning protests of any sort, and was, as a result, jailed on Good Friday, April 12.

While in jail, King read a statement by eight of the leading moderate white clergy in Alabama, condemning the protests and branding King an extremist. The indignant, frazzled leader poured his rejoinder onto newspaper margins and toilet tissue. The iconic document that emerged from those jottings, the "Letter from Birmingham Jail," was always more than a spirited defense of civil disobedience. It was an indictment of white indifference. "Few members of the oppressor race," King insisted, "can understand the ... passionate yearnings of the oppressed race." It was also a declaration of black self-sufficiency ("If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail.") and a stirring refusal of patience. "The word 'Wait!'" wrote King, "rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity." The "Letter" was radical in the scope of its rebuke. King's key targets were not the Klan and Wallace but the very core of American culture, every sort of moderate "who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom."

Neither King's sacrificial act nor his roiling anger was enough to jumpstart the movement, even after he got out of jail on April 20. But in early May, the city's black youth renewed the insurgency. After singing rousing verses of "I Woke Up With My Mind Stayed on Freedom," they burst through the doors of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and faced down Bull Connor's dogs and fire hoses. Within days, an agreement was forged to desegregate the city. The nation had begun its lurch toward the March on Washington, King's "I Have a Dream" speech, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Meanwhile, the federal court-ordered integration of the University of Alabama loomed on June 11. Governor Wallace vowed to stand in the schoolhouse door to block the mixing of races. Kennedy's speech, the one that so impressed and surprised King, came just hours after forcing Wallace to step aside. "We are confronted primarily with a moral issue," he declared. "It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution." The president was finally using language the demonstrators could appreciate: "We preach freedom around the world," he said, "but are we to say to the world, and . . .to each other that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes ...?"

Throughout the speech Kennedy seemed to be channeling the "Letter from Birmingham Jail." King had invited white people to put themselves in a black person's shoes: "When you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will," or " when your first name becomes 'nigger,' your middle name becomes 'boy,' ... then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait." Kennedy, too, used the place-trading device: "If a Negro can't 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?"

The president's address also resembled King's "Letter" in rejecting the idea that blacks should have to wait for equality. "Who among us," Kennedy demanded, "would then be content with counsels of patience and delay?" He mimicked King's critique of "appalling silence": "Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence." The president even picked up the mass meeting chant -- "Now is the time!" Said Kennedy, "Now the time has come for this Nation to fulfill its promise."

Despite that drumbeat of immediacy, Kennedy's call to conscience was belated as well as brave. The president had long epitomized the moderates whom King had blasted in the "Letter" as the true "stumbling block" to justice. In his inaugural address, Kennedy promised to "pay any price" to spread freedom around the globe but he hadn't been willing to do that for black people in the United States. Kennedy, the ever risk-averse pragmatist, kept telling King to "wait" -- exactly the reaction King deplored in the "Letter." When Attorney General Robert Kennedy, afraid that a black child might be maimed in the protests, called King to get him to call off the insurgency of the young, King retorted, "[Black children] are hurt every day."

Presented by

Jonathan Rieder is a professor of sociology at Barnard College, Columbia University, and the author of the recently published Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation and The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr

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