Honoring JFK’s Civil Rights Legacy

President John F. Kennedy played a significant role in shaping the legal landscape and evolution of groundbreaking civil rights laws in America — a role which transcended the times in which he lived.

Moreover, through his words and deeds JFK helped change the hearts and minds of some otherwise bigoted whites for whom discrimination was a well accepted everyday aspect of society.

Therefore, JFK’s heroic civil rights efforts should not be overlooked as the nation honors the life and legacy of the man 50 years after his untimely death.

A Noble Cause

JFK helped advance the noble cause of equal opportunity during a tumultuous time in the history of race relations. This was an ugly period for America in which egregious discrimination was widespread and accepted across many parts of the nation.

President Kennedy signed the historic Equal Pay Act of 1963 and laid the groundwork for passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964which fundamentally altered how Blacks were treated in public life.

In addition to civil rights giants, like Martin Luther King Jr. and others, JFK gave voice to the concept of basic fairness and human dignity for all people. He articulated a bold vision which moved the moral conscience of America.

  • President Kennedy is pictured above with leaders of the civil rights movement in the White House Oval Office (photo credit: JFK Presidential Library)

Confronted with a Moral Crisis

JFK delivered a moving and monumental nationally televised speech on June 11, 1963, during the height of the civil rights struggle. He told the nation (video):

  • “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and it is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated . . .
  • “[O]ne hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet free from the bonds of injustice. And this nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all of its citizens are free.”

  • “Now the time has come for this nation to fulfill its promise. The events of Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently ignore them. We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and as a people. It cannot be met with repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations on the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk.”
  • “It is a time to act in Congress, in your state and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives. Next week I will ask the Congress of the United States to act, to make a commitment it has not fully made in this century to the proposition that race has no place in American life or law.”

Comprehensive Civil Rights Bill

According to historical information from the U.S. EEOC:

  • “Eight days later [after the speech], on June 19, 1963, President Kennedy sent comprehensive civil rights legislation to Congress. Although opposition within the Congress was fierce, the need for civil rights legislation to address growing unrest in the country held sway.”
  • “In August 1963, approximately 250,000 Americans of all races marched in Washington, D.C. in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The event, marked indelibly into the psyche of the nation by the famous “I Have A Dream” speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to symbolize the irresistible insistence for meaningful legislation to address the demand for racial equality and justice.”
  • “This need, together with the mobilization of the civil rights and labor organizations and strong Presidential leadership, coalesced. The result, on July 2, 1964, was the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was to become effective one year later.”

Presidential Proclamation

In commemorating the half-century anniversary of JFK’s assassination, the Obama White House issued a Presidential Proclamation, Day of Remembrance for President John F. Kennedy. The proclamation states:

  • “With broad vision and soaring but sober idealism, President John F. Kennedy had called a generation to service and summoned a Nation to greatness…we honor his memory and celebrate his enduring imprint on American history.”

  • While President Kennedy’s life was tragically cut short, his vision lives on in the generations he inspired…Let us face today’s tests by beckoning the spirit he embodied — that fearless, resilient, uniquely American character that has always driven our Nation to defy the odds, write our own destiny, and make the world anew.”

President Obama and the First Lady, along with Bill and Hillary Clinton, also participated in a wreath laying ceremony (video) at Arlington National Cemetery.

Thus as we reflect on JFK’s many achievements, let’s remember his lasting legacy in fostering civil rights and equal justice during a time when discrimination was rampant across America.


* All views and opinions are those of the author only.

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Leland L. "Ted" Cogdell, Jr.

Hi, David,

President Kennedy was slow to address civil rights. A lot of people suffered while he hesitated. I think the Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis, and perhaps other issues contributed to the delay. He got around to addressing civil rights in his third, and final, year in office. Civil rights leaders were upset with him on the pace of his work. The Civil Rights legislation went to the Hill in June 1963, I believe. It was passed and signed in July 1964. President Johnson suggested that the passing of this legislation would be a lasting tribute to JFK. It was one of many issues JFK did not get to finish himself.

Some suggest that JFK won by a small margin because he made a telephone call to Mrs. King when MLK was in jail. The campaign pointed out that the JFK campaign did this, while the Nixon campaign “did nothing.” A pamphlet was circulated on this by the JFK campaign.

For people in “protected classes,” there is always a long waiting period in this country before there is justice and people finally “do the right thing.” Such is the case now for many, including those who are working hard to advance as employees with targeted disabilities. There seems to be acceptance, for recruitment, hiring, and retention of persons with disabilities/targeted disabilities. But, advancement and promotion in the federal service for these dedicated employees seems to be the one thing no one wants to talk about (except me), like JFK didn’t want to talk about civil rights in his years in the Congress and 1961 or 1962 as president.

Leland L. "Ted" Cogdell, Jr.

I think the Equal Pay Act was set into motion because he had such a strong mother, Rose Kennedy, and four strong sisters, I believe. One of them had mental illness. I think it was her condition that spurred the president to address mental health in this nation. We still struggle with that issue today, for it just got parity with physical health recently.

David B. Grinberg

Ted, thanks so much for sharing your valuable perspective. I appreciate your further articulating the historical and political context of JFK’s tenure as President of the United States, as well as the campaign which preceded it.

Moreover, I agree with you about today’s continuing struggle to address parity in physical and mental health coverage and related issues — especially for people with disabilities, which includes our nation’s veterans.

Dale M. Posthumus

Kennedy had a pivotal role. But, do not forget that much was started under Eisenhower and it was Johnson, a denizen of the Senate and particularly adept at swaying votes (whether you liked his approach or not) in Congress, who ultimately ushered the bill through as President, with significant Republican support, BTW. Kennedy was very adept at encouraging the public to think better. I don’t think he convinced many “bigots”, but he was convincing people who had been apathetic. I still believe his greatest contribution was his encouragement of all Americans – all races, male and female, young and old – to ask themselves what they (we) could do for the country, rather than ask the country to give me something.

Dale M. Posthumus

I find it interesting that Jeff Greenfield, in his book “If Kennedy Had Lived”, posits the 1964 Civil Rights Act might not have passed, in part because Kennedy would not have given it the support it actually gained as a result of his death. I have not read the book yet, but I enjoy historical “what-ifs”.

Leland L. "Ted" Cogdell, Jr.

Interesting, indeed. Weren’t the two major reasons that he asked LBJ to be VP was so that Kennedy could carry Texas in the 1960 election and that LBJ knew how to get bills through the Congress, with all that work entails? It think Kennedy could have gotten it through, had he lived, but he would have paid a certain price in the 1964 elections.