June 11, 1963: Kennedy emerges on civil rights

President Kennedy’s growth as a leader in June 1963 is a key to understanding his life and death.

As Arms Control Today documented last year, JFK’s June 10 speech at American University would influence the arms control vision all of the U.S. presidents who followed him. And as this New York Times column notes, his often-overlooked nationally televised address on June 11, 1963, signaled his evolution as a civil rights leader.

Kennedy announced that the two black students had been enrolled at the University of Alabama, overcoming the objections of racist Gov. George Wallace, and he announced that after more than two years in office and two years of violent segregationist backlash in the South, he was introducing comprehensive civil rights legislation. In an evening, JFK went from timid and calculating on civil rights issues to bold and visionary.


Speaking during the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation — an anniversary he had assiduously avoided commemorating, earlier that year — Kennedy eloquently linked the fate of African-American citizenship to the larger question of national identity and freedom. America, “for all its hopes and all its boasts,” observed Kennedy, “will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.

The opposition would prove violent. Medgar Evers, the Mississippi field secretary for the NAACP, was murdered by white supremacists that night, and the news would overshadow Kennedy’s speech. The Southern congressmen who dominated Congress disdained the civil rights proposal and Martin Luther King began to organize a march on Washington to rally support.


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