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 1964 — which 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.”
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.