Posts Tagged ‘Martin Luther King’

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MPT’s Fall Newsletter

October 29, 2012

Click here:  MPT’s Fall 2012 Newsletter 

Knowing that active nonviolence is always our MPT focus, how do we keep on doing the good work with informed action in community, and with commitment in the face of obstacles? And secondly: What are effective ways of overcoming our own, our community’s, our world’s sense of hopelessness, paralysis, atomization, apathy and cynicism?

This Fall 2012 Newsletter offers the following answers to those questions:

  • Some Tools for the Long Haul – Peter Dougherty (pg. 1)
  • A Noble Difference – Annette Thomas (2-3)
  • Where There Is Apathy, Let Us Bring Hope – Albert F.J. Kreitz (3)
  • This is It!: Experiencing Beloved Community – Kim Redigan (4)
  • Seeing the Other  – Kristie Guerrero-Taylor (5)
  • The Outcome Is Not In Our Hands – Sandra Schneiders, IHM (6)
  • Cynicism & Community – Lydia Wylie-Kellermann (7)
  • Making a Difference, Moment by Moment – Paula Marie (8)
  • Nonviolence Training (8)
  • Peace Teams and the Fall 2012 Peace Team (9)
  • Growing Community Events – Elizabeth Walters, IHM (10-11)
  • Help Continue the Dream (12)
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Protest and the power of the public: MLK’s role in the development of the civil rights bill of 1964

June 2, 2010

There are many reasons why President Kennedy and Robert Kennedy should not have taken the steps they did for civil rights during the early 1960’s, but despite the advise of those around them they continued. Over the years many theories have been proposed to explain why the brothers took the actions they did. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. himself had three theories he thought led to the changes in the Kennedy policy. One theory was a personal connectivity and growth to the movement created a change in their perception of the problems. The second theory was that the black leaders created a crisis that they had to respond to and their morals forced them to create their civil rights policy. And third was that progressing on civil rights was not only morally right, but also politically sound. In King’s oral history he claims, “there are these moments in history—that doesn’t always happen, doesn’t happen often—that what is morally right is politically expedient, politically sound.”
Most likely it is a mixture of all three of these factors along with other institutional reasons which helped create the Civil Rights legislation in 1964, but this paper will examine King’s theory that in rare instances what is morally right is also politically expedient. Why did the civil rights movement take place in the 1960’s 100 years after the civil war? Why did Kennedy’s administration take action in regards to civil rights when he could have continued the more traditional civil rights policies of President Eisenhower? The answer is that the leadership of King had over the blacks in the south led to never before seen mass public demonstrations, which eventually created an atmosphere which President Kennedy could not ignore both the domestic and international pressure to enforce the United States’ belief that ‘all men are created equal.’
The leadership of King and other black leaders in these non-violent direct actions created an atmosphere where what was morally right was also politically sound. These direct actions were new and could be publicized nationally and internationally in easier and more drastic visual ways than in earlier decades creating a wider and more dramatic response than ever before thus creating a crisis that had to be dealt with quickly .
The President explained to civil rights leaders including King how he felt limited by the federal system in what he could do to protect civil rights workers in the South and why he was postponing the Executive Order on housing and efforts to get new legislation. He explained what bills he wanted to get through Congress first that would ‘help all who were economically disadvantaged including the Negros’, the number of Southern senators and representatives he needed to overcome the conservative-Southern-Republican coalition, and the problems of re-election for certain Southern moderates. However, he did affirm his intention to eventually do most if not all of what King sought.
“If we go into a long fight in Congress it will bottleneck everything else and still get no bill,” Kennedy told King. The president assured civil rights leaders that the steps he and the Attorney General intended to take would do more good than any current legislation that was possible, and he invited their collaboration. Top black leaders were privately persuaded to go along with the new course, although they were not prepared to speak up as its proponents.
King was not convinced that Kennedy was fully committed to the same goals of the civil rights leaders. “Kennedy had a long intellectual commitment but he didn’t quite have the emotional commitment. He had not really been involved enough in the problem…He had never really had the personal experience of knowing the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the Negros for Freedom because he just didn’t know negroes generally… (I) didn’t see much of a difference between Nixon and Kennedy,” said King. According to King, Nixon was an opportunist who had a bad voting record until he ran for Vice President, while Kennedy was so focused on being President he would compromise on basic issues, but that Kennedy was surrounded by better men .
This feeling was not well hidden from Kennedy, “unlike the President’s relations with Whitney Young and Roy Wilkins, which were easy and sophisticated, there was always a strain in his dealing with King, who came on with a moral tone that was not Kennedy’s style and made him uncomfortable,” said Harris Wofford, Special assistant to the President on Civil Rights.
King stated:
“I felt that you really had two Kennedys. You had one Kennedy who was president in ’61 and ’62 who, at that time, was committed but not quite sure that he had a mandate from the people because of the razor- thin edge, I mean the very small margin of victory in the election. It seems that, at this time, he was feeling his way and at points vacillating on the civil right s question, not because he wasn’t intellectually and emotionally committed, but because he was not sure that he had the approbation of his constituents in the nation as a whole. But then in 1963, I think he was coming to see that, on one hand, the nation did not have—it was not any fixed structure of conservatism, radicalism or anything for that matter, but it was fluid—and that, instead of a fixed trend, there wise wide room for leadership, that the nation was ready to be led to higher heights. And I think out of this you could see emerging a new Kennedy who had come to see the moral issues involved in the civil rights struggle and who not only came to see them but who was now willing to stand up in a courageous manner for them.”
Before 1963, President Kennedy had little to do with the Civil Rights other than deciding that civil rights legislation was not going to be a big part of his administration. As such, most of the administrations policy fell into the hands of Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General, and his assistant on Civil Rights, Burke Marshall, who were both in charge of enforcing already in place laws like voting registration.
Robert Kennedy took more direct action in the movement, but in the beginning he shared his brother’s views. He stated:
“I don’t think legislation per se is going to eliminate this problem for the United States. I think there are certain things that legislation can do. It can help eliminate discrimination, and it can help eliminate injustice, and can help eliminate unfairness, but as far as ending this problem in this country, it is going to take more than legislation. People, themselves, in all parts of the country are going to have to make a determination, a decision that we are going to live by the constitution and the declaration of Independence. I don’t think we’re at that stage as yet. I think we are much further along now then we were a decade ago or 20 years ago or 30 years ago, but I still think we have a long way to go, considering that the Civil War was fought 100 years ago.”
Because of this the Attorney General put his focus on registering voters instead of legislation early on in the administration. “I felt strongly that this was where the most good could be accomplished I suppose that’s coming, then, out of a political background, but felt that the vote really makes a difference. And from the vote, from participation in the elections, flow all other rights far, far more easily. A great deal could be accomplished internally within a state if the Negros participated in elections and voted,” he said.
On this issue Robert Kennedy and King highly disagreed. King believed that voter registration was too passive, would take too long, and did not fully encompass the issues. To King the only way for change to come was through a dramatic change in the nations beliefs- through non violent direct action, “non violent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.” Eventually King agreed to incorporate the Voter Education Project with his demonstrations in order to receive money from the Attorney General.
Freedom Riders 1961
The first civil rights crisis the Kennedy administration had to deal with was in May 1961 with a group called the Freedom Riders. A multi racial group, led by the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), boarded busses headed for Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi to test the integration of the public places at every stop and to demonstrate, if blocked, that despite the law- segregation was still the rule. “Our philosophy was simple,” James farmer, the director of the CORE, said, “We put on pressure and create a crisis and then they have to react.”
The first group of Freedom Riders left from Washington D.C. on May 4 heading south in order to test the Interstate Commerce Commission’s (ICC) ruling that separate but equal was not allowed for interstate travels and thus must be integrated. The riders faced mobs in both Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama before King got involved with the final mob the riders had to face in Montgomery, Alabama on May 20/21. The mobs, led by the local Klu Klux Klan members, were vicious and according to a present FBI agent acting with the help of the local police. King did little with the Freedom Ride up until the mob attacked in Birmingham. King’s largest role in Birmingham was to act as a negotiating representative to the administration.
As the events unfolded, the President was busy preparing for his meeting with Khrushchev which was to take place in only a month and concentrating on Berlin; he did not appreciate the predicament CORE had created in Alabama. President Kennedy called his Civil Rights advisor, Harris Wofford to tell him to get his friends off the busses. During the crisis a reporter called through the window of a car, “Reverend Abernathy, President Kennedy is about to meet with Premier Khrushchev. Aren’t you afraid of embarrassing him with these demonstrations?” Abernathy replied, “man, we’ve been embarrassed all our lives.”
According to Marshall there were no White House meetings about the crisis and no other cabinet members were involved except the Attorney General, President Kennedy was kept informed but was not involved in any of the actions accept using the presidential act Title X, sections 333 and 334 which allowed for keeping peace “by the use of troops or by any other means necessary.” By stating “any other means” Kennedy meant that the Attorney General was to take “such action as the Attorney General thought appropriate and necessary to restore the situation.”
In general during the crisis the administration members seemed to be thinking very little about the political outcome of their actions and more about the legal precedent it would create. Marshall recalled, “I think a lot of people-I mean if you listen and talk to Governor Patterson or a great many other people, they complained about the Freedom Riders, they complained about the Ku Klux Klan; they complained about a lot of people. But Kennedy accepted what had come about. All of the discussion was not on how terrible or bad it was or how too bad it was or ‘Why don’t they all stay at home and stop stirring things up?” but on what we should do about it.” This attitude towards the situation shows that although Civil Rights was not at the top of the administration’s priority list they were still going to take action if the situation forced it. This statement is the exact opposite position of what Governor Patterson and his contemporaries took on the situation creating the disconnect in coming up with solutions from the very beginning of the phone calls between the White House and the Governor’s office.
The Attorney General wanted law and order, to get the state and local police to carry out their responsibilities and to avoid the use of federal force, but Governor Patterson, an early Kennedy supporter, would not even answer his phone calls. Patterson viewed the Freedom Riders as purposely disturbing the peace, and thus not deserving of police protection. He is quoted by saying if they were just travelers trying to move from city to city then they would deserve protection, but since their goal was to enlist violence they should not be provided protection. In several heated phone conversations with both Marshall and Robert Kennedy who argued that it is the State of Alabama’s duty to protect all travelers, despite their motives, Governor Patterson decided to remove all contact to the White House. Eventually under heavy pressure Governor Patterson agreed to protect the riders as they proceeded to Montgomery and then to Jackson.
The Greyhound Company couldn’t find any drivers for the bus. Frustrated, the Attorney General called the local company and said “the government is going to be very upset if this group does not get to continue their trip, so somebody better get in the damn bus and get it going and get these people on their way; We have gone to a lot of trouble to see that they get to this trip and I am most concerned to see that it is accomplished.”
A driver was found but a transcript of the Attorney General’s conversation was leaked to the public which convinced many Southerners that the administration actually instigated the rides. The wording of this particular statement is what really broke the support of most southern white voters for Robert Kennedy. He vehemently argued that all he was trying to do was uphold law and order, but to the voters it sounded like he helped instigate the Freedom Riders. The Senators in those states all put out public announcements against the Attorney General and the President’s actions, but most in private wrote letters saying they supported the intervention over Governor Patterson’s obstruction. Patterson’s response to the situation was, “by this time the situation had gotten very hot between here and Washington. And really, the administration in Washington, and Robert particularly, were doing everything they could to stir it up and keep it going, rather than trying to calm the thing down. And the situation had gotten so bad that I had asked the White House and Mr. Kennedy’s office not to call me on the telephone no more, that his thing was too sensitive to deal with over the telephone about. There was too much room for misunderstanding. This Mr. Robert Kennedy, in my judgment, did not understand the federal-state relationship.”
The relationship between the Federal, State, and local governments became a central issue within the Kennedy administrations dealings with King’s demonstrations. King usually began these protests at a local level, but there aim was to involve not just the local authorities, but to initiate change at the larger level. With the new and increasing non-violent direct actions the administration began to see more and more outside pressure to act though in many cases the United State’s federal system did not allow for the federal government to legally intervene. This argument is one that the Federal government has been having with the Southern States regarding this same issue since the inception of the United States and was the cause of the Civil War. King’s public protest directly brought the controversy back into the for front of the conversation and in several cases the administration was left only with the option of putting pressure on the lower levels to uphold order.
Governor Paterson did not keep his word to protect the passengers and when they reached Montgomery. There were no police officers, there was only a mob. The Attorney General ordered 500 Marshals to stop the mob on May 20 and on May 21. In Montgomery, Martial Law was declared and King called the President on the behalf of the people in the First Baptist Church.
Throughout the night the Attorney General continued to talk to King by telephone as the riders were trapped in the church. It was very tense and at one point King complained that he was not doing enough to which he replied exasperated with a old joke saying that, “If it hadn’t been for the United States Marshals you (King) would be as dead as Kelsey’s nuts,” but fortunately a minute later the United Sates Marshals arrived which gained control over the mob.
Mississippi officials finally assured Marshal and Robert Kennedy that there would be no violence as the bus continued its path but that the Riders would be arrested when they reached Jackson. The Attorney General had told Senator Eastland that, “my primary interest was that they weren’t beaten up.” That was not King’s primary interest, and he disliked the deal. Marshall argued that there was a vital “difference between winding up in jail and winding up at the mercy of a mob.”
The Attorney General publicly called for a “cooling-off” period during which further Freedom Riding would be delayed after the original group made it to Jackson where they were arrested. However, Farmer rejected this idea by saying that the blacks, “had been cooling off for a hundred years and would be in a deep freeze if they cooled any further.”
Although Robert Kennedy worked in such a way that it looked like he fully supported the Freedom Riders, or to some even initiated the ride, the truth was that he felt very uncomfortable with the actions of the riders. Freedom riders would alienate support; the Attorney General again argued that an increased number of registered black voters was the better option. King however concluded that, “After the freedom rides ended, I think, the Attorney General had to admit that they had real value in bringing the issue so much out in the open and appealing to the conscience enough to bring about an almost total, well, almost end to segregation in public transport.”
The freedom rides had some successes: two weeks after the first violence in Alabama, the Attorney General petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to issue regulations requiring the end of segregation in all interstate terminals. Under heavy administration pressure, the ICC issued the order on September 22, 1961 and the Justice Department took steps, city by city, to bring down all segregation signs.
Robert Kennedy then had a long conversation with King where King said, “It’s a matter of conscience and morality. They must use their lives and their bodies to right a wrong, perhaps it would help if students came down by the hundreds of thousands… you must understand that we’ve made no gains without pressure and I hope that pressure will always be moral, legal, and peaceful… I’m deeply appreciative of what the administration is doing. I see a ray of hope, but I am different than my father. I feel the need of being free now!” Where Robert Kennedy replied, “That is not going to have the slightest effect on what the government is going to do in this field or any other. The fact that they stay in jail is not going to have the slightest effect on me.” This conversation and his agreement with the Mississippi Governor shows that no mater the support that Robert Kennedy gave to the Freedom Riders he was not fully committed to the cause as they would like. At this point, Kennedy was not willing to the moral side of civil rights nor was he willing to use it as a legitimate argument for taking action outside of the law. In 1961, Kennedy was only willing to fight for the follow through of law for all citizens.
CORE and King failed in their effort to force the President to speak out in moral terms. President Kennedy did not take the President Truman path by saying the Freedom Riders should have stayed at home and attended their own business instead of stirring up trouble. But he was upset that their tactics came on the eve of his trip to Europe, especially since they had already changed his domestic agenda by producing an intervention in the South he had hoped to avoid. As a result he refused their request to personally welcome the Freedom riders back to Washington and instead a month later in a press conference stated, “that everyone who travels, for whatever reason they travel, should enjoy the full constitutional protection given to them by the law and the Constitution.” Thus the President instead of focusing on the moral and race issues at hand, emphasizing that the actions were a violation of law, order, and safety.
Birmingham 1963
In the spring of 1963, the administration faced the largest and most universally watched civil rights disaster in its time. The demonstrations were considered an international embarrassment which was perceived a big enough threat for African and Southern Asian countries to threaten to declare allegiance to the Soviets. The State department was receiving daily updates and press statements from the White House to assure foreign leaders that the United States did not support the oppression of minorities. The event was considered a domestic crisis as the demonstrations that started in Birmingham began to spread to cities all over the south. The administration also feared that more radical black leaders like Malcolm X might overpower King’s non-violent movement if a solution was not found quickly . These issues finally caught President Kennedy’s attention who realized he could no longer ignore the Civil Rights situation. The administration, however, had no authority over city politics and private local businesses.
In early April 1963, the administration received an article King had written for the nation warning the administration it was at “a historic crossroad” in which civil rights “no longer commanded the conscience of the nation. In fairness it must be said that this Administration has outstripped all previous (administrations) in the breadth of its civil rights activities,” but now “its moral commitment and with its political fortunes” would be determined: “The administration sought to demonstrate to Negroes that it has concern for them, while at the same time it has striven to avoid inflaming the opposition. The most cynical view holds that it wants the votes of both and is paralyzed by the conflicting needs of each. I am not ready to make a judgment condemning the motives of the Administration as hypocritical. I believe that it sincerely wishes to achieve change, but that it has misunderstood the forces at play.” Soon after receiving this article King began leading citizens into action to end segregation in Birmingham, Alabama.
1962 was a fairly quite year for the Civil Rights movement so in this article King is making the argument in favor of the mass demonstrations he is planning in Birmingham. He is afraid that because the administration is simultaneously trying to keep the southern vote as well as the black vote the administration will elect to continue to do nothing large on the issue. He is afraid that if the black community does not do something large very soon that the opportunity for the morally correct and politically sound to lineup will pass by; this is the ‘historic crossroad’ he refers to in the article. King intends for the article is a call to action for the black community, the nation, but specifically Kennedy.
In early May, both the Attorney General and Burke Marshall went to Birmingham. The purpose was nothing to do with legislation like the public called for because they did not have the jurisdiction, but the purpose was to do something in order to show to those who pressured them. They tried to assess what King was after. King, however, did not know specifics of what they were asking for with their demonstrations. Several weeks after the demonstrations had started King held a meeting, upon Marshall’s suggestion, to decide what specifically they were trying to gain.
At this point Birmingham’s city government had yet to be determined. There had recently been an election and the results were being contested in the courts, so they could not be demonstrating to ask for something from the city government. At the meeting the Civil Rights Leaders came up with a list of demands, requests, and a proposed program of action which was generally directed at the large downtown stores asking to be allowed at the lunch counters and for employment.
With this proposal Marshall, talked to a young lawyer named David Vann who represented several of the large stores. Marshall gave Vann what King wanted and told him to talk to his clients which he did with unsuccessful results. Marshall stated: “They (the store owners) had not been thinking about it and they were just against anything that King wanted-it was poison to them, but the initial report was that it was hopeless.” The Birmingham store owners were poisoned against anything that had a connection to King’s name. One letter that Marshall received agreed with Marshall that the white community needed to seriously talk with the black Birmingham community, but said that it was out of the question for them to talk to outside instigators like King. A compromise was not something that they would initially look at let alone agree to.
Marshall recalled, “There was no legal remedy. That was clear from the start and I know that we discussed that with the President. So he understood it, but most of the country did not. You know they wanted him to send in troops, they wanted him to do this, that or the other thing.” Again the administration was faced with the issue of the Federal State relationship. The public was infuriated by the pictures and stories that were being published in their papers and they wanted someone to do something about it so they wrote letters to the President demanding action, not fully understanding how the United States government works. Later in the summer of 1963 the President of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wrote demanding action, to which the White House responded that although they felt passionately about this issue their pressure in the south was more of a hindrance than a help .
Back in Washington the President called for the relevant staff (Burke Marshall the Attorney General’s assistant on Civil Rights, Ted Sorenson the Presidents special council and speech writer, and Nicholas Katzenbach the Deputy Attorney General with some input from Robert Kennedy) to think of what to do. President Kennedy considered it a matter of national and international concern at the time because of the mass demonstrations. The staff worked to put together the Senior Citizens Commission which was made up of white men who were rich, conservative, powerful, large employers and lawyers from the city with the objective of ending King’s demonstrations that were hurting their businesses. Burke Marshall called up the Attorney General to have him talk to the men from various companies. The President also saw to it that all of the members of his cabinet-that everybody- helped call the companies to convince them to endorse King’s agreement. In the end they all agreed to sign the resolution and there were only two to three dissents.
Although the Kennedy administration did everything in its power to help end this crisis with a positive civil rights precedent the administration was not happy with King. They were only dealing with King because of the attention Birmingham was getting worldwide and because he was better than the alternative, Malcolm X. This, of course, is what King was hoping to achieve since his first demonstrations in the late 1950s. King realized early on that if he wanted to get the United States government to create legislation and to take a firm stand on civil rights then you had to create the ‘crisis’ situation where what is morally right could line up with what was politically solid. King realized that you had to create an imbalance in the system to bring your issues higher on the priority list, in order to get action.
On May 13, 1963, Louis Martin, Deputy Chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and highest ranking black man within the Kennedy’s administration, warned Robert Kennedy that “the accelerated tempo of Negro restiveness and the rivalry of some leaders for top billing coupled with the resistance of segregationists may soon create the most critical state of race relations since the Civil War.” In the spring of 1963, the administration was not the only group in a crossroads, so were the activists as well. Many black activists were growing tired of the non-violent movement and were beginning to argue for violent revolts. A week later Robert Kennedy had a meeting with a group of black activists which at the end he exclaimed, “They don’t know anything. They don’t know what the laws are- they don’t know what the facts are- they don’t know what we’ve been doing or what were trying to do. You couldn’t talk to them as you can to Roy Wilkins or Martin Luther King… It was all emotion, hysteria. They stood up and orated. They cursed. Some of them wept and walked out of the room.” The newer generation of activist wanted faster and more visual results, many of them were not willing to work within the political realm at all and even, in some respects, disregard the role that the government has in the situation all together.
On July 24, 1963 the State Department received a letter from Tom Dammann a foreign correspondent, warning that the Middle East: “May send protestors to the US to ‘Stop Black Muslims’ Leaders.” Dammann wrote the Sheik (of Saudi Arabia) says that much of the current tension results from the international publicity given to the racial troubles in the US. To prove his point Sheik picked up the morning Arabic paper and read aloud an account of a riot in Jackson, Mississippi, that he noted had received as much front-page prominence as the report of an Egyptian air raid on a hospital and mosque in southern Saudi Arabia. In addition, “The Chinese Communists have chosen to link the struggle of the American Negro with the cause of the Africans and Asians in order to strengthen their poison among colored races and widen the split between Peking and Russia, with the total effect of sharpening the differences between white men and people of the other colors; and, because a small minority in America is “misusing our religion, which is international in scope, to further its own ends.”
Afterwards King assessed the success achieved in Birmingham to be a turning point for the Kennedy administration on Civil Rights legislation. King said, “Now this is why I say Birmingham did it, because in January he was saying there was no need and yet, after the Birmingham movement and subsequent developments, he found it necessary to reorder his list of priorities. And he did come forth with very strong civil rights legislation. So I’m sure that the developments took place in other cities as a result of Birmingham caused the president to weigh this thing more and to raise questions in his own mind. And it caused him to see, it seems to me, that he had to take a strong stand. No matter what happened and no matter what the polls revealed, he had to take a strong stand on this issue.”
The call for Civil rights legislation
During this period the Kennedy Administration decided to go all-out, with an effort to enact strong new civil rights legislation, and to mobilize the economic and political leadership of the country for racial change. Kennedy acknowledged that his proposed action might make him lose the upcoming election, but said, “There comes a time when a man has to take a stand…” However, the President was not supported by his advisors on the decision to push for legislation. According to Burke Marshall, “every single person who spoke about it in the White House was against President Kennedy sending up that bill; against his speech in June; against making it a moral issue; against the March on Washington.” Robert Kennedy was the only one pushing his brother towards this path.
Many of the same barriers that President Kennedy was aware of at the beginning of his administration were still present. He still had other legislation he wanted to pass, had big issues internationally, and needed to overcome a coalition of senators against any form of civil rights legislation. The only thing that had really changed was the amount of attention that the civil rights demonstrations were receiving and the amount of pressure on Kennedy to do something. Eventually it came down to President Kennedy making a gut decision to give the speech asking for Civil Rights legislation. A gut decision, much like the one that caused him and his brother to call the Kings during the election of 1960, the hunch that helped put Kennedy over the edge of victory in that election.
President Kennedy woke up the morning of his speech calling for the legislation and called his brother to tell him that he made his decision that morning to give the speech against everyone’s advice. During the day Governor Wallace decided to allow two black students into the Alabama university; President Kennedy thought the time was right to go before Congress and ask for legislation. It was so sudden that he almost had to go on air with out a text, but Sorensen’s draft arrived just in time. “It drew on at least three years of evolution in his thinking and on at least three months of revolution in the equal rights movement,” Sorenson said later.
There has been much written about President Kennedy’s legacy as a leader in civil rights but Roy Wilkins summed it up well with his remembrance:
“Kennedy created a climate in which change could take place, in which change was not regarded necessarily as a revolution, in which change was regarded as a step forward in the moral, economic, and political growth of the American ideal, a climate in which change could take place because America was assuming more and more leadership in the nations of the free democratic world. This became the American thing to do. It’s no longer fashionable to be prejudice, to exercise discrimination, even though you have it. Despite the President’s initial determination to try to resolve these problems through executive action, whether or not he was successful in this course- perhaps his greatest contribution may have been the creation of a climate that would lead to the passage of the act.”
With the addition of the words ‘administration and King’s non-violent direct action’ directly behind the word Kennedy I would agree with this summery of President Kennedy’s legacy. Kennedy himself took little interest in the Civil Rights movement until the end of his administration, but he allowed his brother and the rest of his staff the freedom to work with King as needed to create a climate where discrimination was not fashionable and that being the first to integrate your business would be financially beneficial.
In 1964 the Civil Rights bill was passed by Congress nearly a year after President Kennedy’s impromptu to speech to Congress. At the beginning of his administration Kennedy placed Civil Rights at the bottom of his priority list, not even mentioning it in his Inaugural Speech. Three years later Kennedy passed on the advice of his council and the reelection in order to achieve the Civil Rights bill. In order to account for the change in priorities for Kennedy, you must take into account King’s protests and the power of the public to pressure Kennedy to see Civil Rights as both as a moral issue and as a politically feasible issue.

Chelsea Clark, MPT Intern

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King, Martin L. Interview by Berl I. Bernard. Oral History of Martin Luther King Jr. John F. Kennedy Library Oral Research Project, 9 Mar 1964.
Kennedy, Robert F. Interview by Louis Martin. Oral History of Robert F. Kennedy. John F. Kennedy Library Oral Research Project,1964.
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Reeves, Richard President Kennedy: Profile of Power. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1993.
Sorenson, Theodore. Interview by Carl Kaysen. Oral History of Theodore Sorensen. John F. Kennedy Library Oral Research Project, 3 May 1964.
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“The World American Survey, Power of Persuasion.” The Economist, 25 May 1962.
Willkins, Roy. Interview by Berl Bernhard. Oral History of Roy Wilkens. John F. Kennedy Library Oral Research Project, 13 Aug 1967.
Wofford, Harris. Interview by Berl Bernhard. Oral History of Harris Wofford. John F. Kennedy Library Oral Research Project, 29 Nov 1965.
Wofford, Harris Of Kennedys and Kings. Toronto: McGraw-Hill. 1980.

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