When President Kennedy found himself in a deep hole, he started digging.
Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian
This month, we take a break from the stress and controversy of the pandemic to talk about something lighter, like um, racial inequality. While it has been a topic of much discussion in recent weeks, it was also a bit of an issue in 1963.
That year, civil rights activists were holding sit-ins and marches, and MLK Jr. was arrested, prompting him to write his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In May, protestors were met with fire hoses and police dogs, and the hotel where King had been staying was bombed. And that’s just some of the stuff we know about.
It was a time of great turmoil, as well one that called for decisive leadership, and President Kennedy was eager to provide it – if only he could decide how. To his defense, it was a little complicated.
Blacks, who had overwhelmingly voted for Kennedy in 1960, were frustrated with his seemingly timid efforts to further civil rights. At the same time, those timid efforts were costing him support among whites in the North, who were beginning to wonder if the President had forgotten about their concerns. And you can imagine how many whites in the south felt.
To top it off, Kennedy was also keenly worried about how the civil rights struggle reflected on the U.S. globally, especially in contrast to the Soviet state. It’s not easy to sell democracy abroad when the cops are clubbing citizens back home. As Kennedy told one Senator, “Events are making our problems.”
And looming on the horizon was the 1964 election. As one historian summarized, Kennedy’s task was to “somehow generate a big turnout from white and black liberals outside the South, while not alienating too many white Democrats inside the South. Along the way, he had to avoid appearing to give in to southern segregationists, or seeming to take orders from civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.”
All righty then. But what to do? Vice President Johnson had previously suggested the President highlight the military service of blacks by appearing on television with an interracial honor guard. Legislation was another option, but as Kennedy had once privately lamented, “What law can you pass to do anything about [local] police power?”
But all the vacillating came to an end on June 11. That day, Alabama Governor George Wallace had briefly prevented two black students from integrating the university. The gesture was purely symbolic, but – at least in the eyes of the locals – a brilliant PR move. After “winning” that showdown, Kennedy decided it was time for the government to make a major statement on civil rights. That night.
The nationally televised speech Kennedy gave that evening was written in about two hours, and was still being worked on minutes before air time. It also was too short, prompting Kennedy to make some of his remarks extemporaneously. Even with his additional comments, the speech lasted less than 14 minutes.
But it worked. “JFK Asks Nation to End Race Curbs; Two Negroes Enrolled at Alabama U,’ declared the Washington Post. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch called the speech “one of the major achievements of the civil rights struggle,” and Newsweek called it “the politics of courage.”
Of course, others were less overwhelmed. The Wall Street Journal’s understated headline read, “Kennedy Outlines Civil Rights Bill, Asks Public Help,” and ran the article inside. And Time magazine quipped that Kennedy had asked, “not what a Kennedy Administration could do for the Negroes, but what the Negroes could do for John F. Kennedy on Election Day.”
And some were not impressed at all. Georgia Sen. Richard Russell Jr., for example, complained that a civil rights bill would transform the U.S. into a “socialistic or communist state.” Russell would later go on to filibuster the civil rights legislation and help write “The Southern Manifesto.” As punishment for these outrageous acts, Congress named one of the DC Senate buildings in his honor.
But at least Kennedy’s remarks resonated with the black community. NAACP leader Roy Wilkins recalled, “For the first time in years, real change seemed to be at hand.” And that King guy said, “That white man not only stepped up to the plate, he hit it over the fence!”
In fact, Kennedy’s speech prompted the activists to revise their own tactics. Previously they had planned to march on Washington to pressure Kennedy; now they decided to put pressure on Congress.
Kennedy submitted his civil rights bill to Congress the next week. Ahead lay a difficult road: There would be much more violence, and Kennedy himself would be assassinated in November. LBJ was able to usher the bill through the following July, but the political cost was steep: All the Southerners who voted Democratic that year later met up to celebrate. At a Krispy Kreme.
While Kennedy did not live to see the passing of his legislation, his speech is widely considered to be a brilliant strategy. You can read a transcript here.
PR pros might disagree on racial issues, but there is one thing we should all be able to agree on: The right message, delivered at the right time, by the right person, and in the right way, can truly make a profound impact.
“Recognizing the call of history,” one historian wrote, “Kennedy made an abrupt turn and accepted the mantle of moral leadership King had urged upon him.” Another historian simply describes June 10 and 11, 1963, as “the 48 Hours that changed history.” But I’ll let JFK have the last word:
“The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities. … One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. … And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free. … Now the time has come for this nation to fulfill its promise.”