JFK’s 1963 Race Speech Made Him an African-American Icon

President John F. Kennedy Jr. changed race relations by making civil rights a “moral issue.”

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President John F. Kennedy’s tragic assassination 50 years ago today had a profound impact on American race relations.

A president who, during his last six months in office, acknowledged that “civil rights has become everything” embraced the movement and in the process helped not only to solidify his personal legend but also to transform a nation.

As the nation marks the 50th anniversary, the booming Kennedy industry has gone into overdrive with the release of dozens of books commemorating the man, the glamorous moment in history known as “Camelot” and the conspiracy theories still surrounding his death.

For African Americans, Kennedy remains an icon of the civil rights era. And in the imaginations of a generation of blacks who remember Jim Crow America, Kennedy represented the hope for a new world freed of racial discrimination and segregation.

Martin Luther King Jr., of course, remains the undisputed political mobilizer and civil rights leader of the era. But there is a reason why, after 1968, Kennedy—as well as his younger brother and attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated on June 5, 1968—became regarded as esteemed and iconic martyrs in the black community. The images of JFK, MLK and RFK are forever memorialized in amateur paintings that have taken pride of place on the mantles of black homes from Northeastern inner cities out to Oakland and Los Angeles and large areas in between.

At 43, the youngest man ever to be elected president, Kennedy built his relationship with the black community over time. As a presidential candidate, the young senator from Massachusetts unsuccessfully pursued an endorsement from baseball great and civil rights activist Jackie Robinson. He found better luck with singer and activist Harry Belafonte and tipped the scales of the black vote in his favor largely through a single telephone call to Coretta Scott King, inquiring if he could do anything to aid the incarcerated MLK, during the 1960s campaign.

Kennedy took office in 1961 amid great expectations from the civil rights community but seemed initially hesitant about taking a robust stance on civil rights. He feared, rightfully, that pro-civil rights legislation would stall his wider political agenda, alienate Southern Democrats and risk his re-election chances in 1964.

But racial upheaval around the nation soon forced the president and his brother into action. The 1961 Freedom Rides—integrated groups of activists traveling the South in defiance of segregation—drew a violent backlash in places like Anniston and Birmingham, Ala. The following year, James Meredith’s integration of the University of Mississippi triggered more violence and proved to be a distraction from JFK’s international agenda.

In 1963, though, President Kennedy found his voice on the civil rights front. That year, which marked the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, found King (along with local leader, Fred Shuttlesworth) in Birmingham, helping lead a desegregation campaign. When dogs, fire hoses and overt police brutality routed peaceful demonstrators, Kennedy told reporters at a press conference that what he saw happening in Birmingham made him “sick.”

On June 11, 1963, the president delivered a remarkable nationally televised address on race and democracy that would stand out as Kennedy’s finest moment as president. Calling the issue of civil rights “a moral issue” that required strong political leadership and public policy including a strong civil rights bill, Kennedy gave the boldest speech on race relations ever given by a president up until that time.

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