JFK’s Civil-Rights Problem

Candidate Kennedy promised a civil-rights bill, but President Kennedy was cautious—overly cautious, critics said—in proposing legislative action.

Civil-rights marchers stage a rally of about 1,500 people in Indianapolis on August 4, 1963. (Bob Daughterty / AP)

Probably no other sentence he has uttered has proved more embarrassing to the president than his eloquent inaugural plea: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” That simplicity of phrase brought a chorus of “What do you want us to do?” to which there has been precious little response other than that young men and women could join the Peace Corps. Join the Peace Corps they have, both old and young, and with a will and enthusiasm which demonstrate what a deep river of conscience exists in this nation, if only it is tapped.

Yet most of the other answers Kennedy has tried to give have often seemed too complex and too remote: improve the rate of economic growth, fight juvenile delinquency, increase American exports, improve civil rights, engage in physical-fitness programs, and so on. Indeed, the Kennedy campaign promises have provided the Republicans with numerous political barbs to throw back at the president.

Too much caution?

A major example is in the field of civil rights. A recent broadside by the National Federation of Republican Women quoted Shakespeare to plague the president: “His promises were, as he was then, mighty; But his performance, as he is now, nothing.” And on civil rights the Republican women point to a campaign promise that a civil-rights bill “will be among the first orders of business when a new Congress meets in January.” This was to be in January 1961, but the president has relied not on new legislation but on persuasion and use of existing legislation to move the nation forward in this field.

Often he has acted apparently because of pressure from the more militant Negro groups, as was the case in Birmingham, Alabama. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy has more than once complained that the militants were being too militant. Yet it probably is true that this very militancy has been the major instrument by which the Kennedy administration has been able to use its good offices in breaking down the racial bars in both North and South.

In the economic field the president has prodded Congress for new instruments with which to improve the nation’s economy and to lower its far-too-high rate of unemployment. But he has often first sounded the high note, only to retreat later and compromise, before his own allies in Congress have had a chance to do battle for his cause …

It is true that the president proposes and Congress disposes, at least to a large degree, despite overwhelming Democratic majorities in both House and Senate. Yet Kennedy’s argument is that by careful cajolery and fancy footwork at the Capitol the Congress has passed, and will pass, many a bill by a slim margin which otherwise would have been lost, if a frontal assault on Congress or a plea to the public over its head had been tried. It is now well established that the president’s approach is to avoid the head-on collisions at almost all costs.

Perhaps history will record that in domestic affairs Kennedy pushed and prodded the nation as far and as fast as anyone could have done. However, the fact remains that far too little has been accomplished on the domestic front in relation to the needs of a growing and more affluent population.

On June 11, 1963, evidently after the July issue of The Atlantic went to press, President Kennedy delivered an emotional speech on national television in which he called for legislation to, among other things, desegregate restaurants, hotels, and other establishments. (See “Passing the Torch.") His proposals became the basis of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, enacted after his death.