Being born on May 29, 1917, one hundred years ago this month, John F. Kennedy became the first president born in the twentieth century to serve in the White House, campaigning as the Democratic party candidate in the election of 1960. While winning 78 percent of the black vote in 1960, President Kennedy won the election by one of the narrowest margins in American history.
For the most part, President Kennedy’s New Frontier agenda was dominated by foreign policy, especially the Cold War challenges, including the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, on the domestic front, civil rights could not be ignored as sit-ins, freedom rides, boycotts and peaceful marches across the country were becoming commonplace. Additionally, black improvement groups such as the NAACP, the Urban League, CORE, SCLU and SNCC brought pressure on President Kennedy to do the right thing.
Making the case for civil rights to be viewed as a constitutional and moral issue, civil rights leader Whitney Young, Jr., of the Urban League boldly asserted, “As the colored American for more than 300 years has been given the special consideration of exclusion, he must now be given special treatment by society, through services and opportunities, that will insure his inclusion as a citizen able to compete equally with others.” Speaking from the position of being the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization, the NAACP made it very clear that its support for civil rights “has been from all angles, at all targets, at all times, with all weapons, over all the years.”
As the first American president to view civil rights as a moral issue, President Kennedy had the most difficult task of trying to get many members of Congress to share his point of view. After all, the South, where Jim Crow kept blacks in a subservient status, was ruled by Democrats—segregationists and racists. And many of them opposed Martin Luther King, whom they viewed as a threat to their way of life.
In the meantime, some civil rights activists saw Kennedy as being too cautious, “more concerned with quieting the movement down than removing the practices it opposed.” However, seeing American racism on full display, President Kennedy will endorse civil rights, “making the most powerful appeal for civil rights yet made by a president.” This event that transformed civil rights to a moral issue occurred on the evening of June 11, 1963, with a nationally televised speech from the oval office, which became known as Kennedy’s Civil Rights Address.
In addressing civil rights head on, President Kennedy stated, “The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.”
Without a doubt, President Kennedy moved America toward the “ideals of freedom and justice for all people,” and he captured the heart of black Americans in the process.
Larry Sutton is a retired teacher from Clinton High School.