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.
He challenged Americans to view the struggle for racial equality as part of the national interest, saying, “Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence” while “those who act boldly are recognizing right as well as reality.” He invited Americans of all backgrounds to engage in a kind of civic activism that reflected the tough work of democracy, arguing that “A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all.” In the same speech, he announced that he would seek to pass comprehensive civil rights legislation and spur school desegregation beyond its frustratingly glacial pace.
In one fell swoop, then, Kennedy placed himself not simply on the side of the civil rights movement, but as one of that movement’s champions. The speech was written by longtime aide Ted Sorenson but edited personally by the president, and adopted the moral language of civil rights leaders, especially King.
“The fires of frustration and discord … burning in every city” that Kennedy spoke of that evening continued to burn throughout the year, reaching their apogee at the decade’s end in a swirl of protests over issues related to race, war and democracy.
And by the time the March on Washington convened on Aug. 28, JFK was rightfully viewed as a powerful ally of the movement.
Kennedy’s evolution on America’s racial crisis had real consequences in life and death. Following Kennedy’s assassination, new President Lyndon B. Johnson, the former Democratic leader in the Senate, was viewed skeptically by civil rights activists. But by the time of his own landslide presidential election in November 1964, Johnson proved to be a masterful legislator and public advocate of racial justice, pushing the Civil Rights Act of which Kennedy spoke to passage through Congress on July 2, 1964, based in part on bipartisan momentum toward honoring Kennedy’s legacy.
Ultimately, the most important part of Kennedy’s legacy may be one that’s rarely acknowledged beyond the aura that surrounds him—revealing a deeper story of a political figure whose perceptions about race were changed by the times in which he lived. Kennedy’s finest moment as president showcased his evolution from a cautious politician into a world leader bold enough to deliver perhaps the finest speech ever on race relations.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael will be published next year by Basic Books. Follow him on Twitter.