John F. Kennedy's Evolution on Civil Rights, 1949-63
This site is appropriate for middle or high school students who have studied the major points of Kennedy’s presidency and would like to know more about his evolution on social policy and civil rights.
Kennedy’s views on civil rights have been much discussed. He moved from an almost dismissive stance toward advocates in spring 1961 to a reasonable commitment to a civil rights bill by fall of 1963 (Dallek 383, 603, 685). As James N. Giglio has argued, “No domestic struggle occupied the Kennedy presidency more intensely or for a longer duration than civil rights. This was not by choice,” as Kennedy and most Americans had wanted a more moderate approach (Giglio 173, 175). But events of Kennedy’s time in office - the Freedom Rides in 1961, the desegregation of universities in Mississippi and Alabama in 1962 and 1963, and the Birmingham clashes in 1963 (Giglio 173) - pushed him from slow and moderate to slightly faster and somewhat more open, culminating with his belief by 1963 that national legislation was needed to combat endemic prejudice. Although many civil rights leaders in 1961 brushed off Kennedy’s actions as much weaker than they would have expected (Dallek 384), the kernels of Kennedy’s evolution were already growing steadily, as a result of his commitment to the traditional liberal social agenda outlined in Truman’s Fair Deal. Ultimately, Kennedy believed that the federal government should ensure basic rights for everyone, and he opened his mind to include African-Americans in that protection.
From the beginning of Kennedy’s time in politics, he believed in a raft of liberal policies, with civil rights tacked on as part of the package. In a campaign speech in West Virginia in April 1960, Kennedy excoriated his opponent for neglecting the needy: “Mr. [Richard] Nixon leads the same party that voted 90 percent against the Social Security in the mid-Thirties and voted 90 per cent against the medical care for the aged tied to social security in 1960. Anybody who wants that kind of progress, anybody who wants that kind of prosperity, anybody who wants a party that is against housing, minimum wage, social security, equal opportunity, civil rights --” (Kennedy, “Glenwood”). Kennedy trailed off sarcastically at the end to impute his view that a social safety net was vital to America’s economic health. Kennedy’s legislative record in Congress echoed his belief in fair housing and government entitlements, if not the civil rights bills of 1957-58 (Dallek 215-8). As early as 1949, the year of a landmark housing bill that would pave the way for his own Housing Act of 1961, Kennedy spoke against Congress’ foot-dragging in implementing Truman’s Fair Deal slate of social welfare programs (Kennedy, “Greensburg”). And, just before the 1961 housing act, Kennedy celebrated the Minimum Wage Act, which represented the first increase since FDR’s presidency (Kennedy, “Minimum”). From early on, Kennedy believed in the power of government to improve the lives of ordinary people, even if civil rights was only a slim plank in that platform.
Despite not becoming as supportive as he could have been in the Freedom Riders’ actions in the spring of 1961 (Dallek 383; Giglio 178-83), Kennedy did take some steps toward civil rights early in his presidency. During the same first half of in 1961 in which he signed the housing and minimum wage acts, he also lobbied intensely for Robert Weaver, an African-American civil rights advocate, to be head of a new proposed Cabinet department, the Department of Urban Affairs and Housing (Giglio 177). In an ultimately unsuccessful appeal to the leaders of both houses of Congress, Kennedy argued for the “necessary leadership” to oversee these important topics (Kennedy, Letter). As he had understood during the 1960 campaign, when he asked Harris Wofford in August, “Now in five minutes, tick off the ten things a President ought to do to clean up this…civil rights mess” (Dallek 291), he saw the need for African-Americans to assume prominent positions in his administration.
Kennedy referred over and over again to the “dignity” of human beings in his speeches (Kennedy, “Greensburg”; “Glenwood”), and the civil rights bill he promised in 1963 was the culmination of that thinking. By the time the March on Washington happened in August, and beforehand with his notable June speech on civil rights, Kennedy explicitly linked his liberal economic policies to civil rights, one not possible without the other: “This Nation can afford to achieve the goals of a full employment policy--it cannot afford to permit the potential skills and educational capacity of its citizens to be unrealized” (Kennedy, “Statement”). Helped by a liberal social outlook, Kennedy had come to accept that every citizen, regardless of color, needed equal opportunity in order for the entire nation to thrive.