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.


13 thoughts on “June 11, 1963: Kennedy emerges on civil rights”

  1. There was a young man who shared JFK’s views on segregation and in 1963 included this as part of a speech he wrote.

    “My second reason is that undemocratic country-wide institution known as segregation. It is I think, the action of the active segregationist minority and the great body of indifferent people in the South who do the United States more harm in the eyes of the world’s people, than the whole communist movement. As I look at the audience, there is a sea of white faces before me. Where are the Negroes amongst you (Are they hiding under the table). Surely if we are for democracy, let our fellow Negro citizens into this hall. Make no mistake, segregationist tendencies can be unlearned. I was born in New Orleans, and I know.”

    “In Russia I saw on several occasions that in international meeting the greatest glory on the sport field was brought to us by Negroes. Though they take the gold medals from their Russian competitors, those Negroes know that when they return to their own homeland, they will face blind hatred and discrimination.”

    The young man was Lee Harvey Oswald.

  2. I’m curious if anyone else here watched the “JFK vs. Nixon” episode of the recent CNN series “Race for the White House.” I just watched it and I was absolutely astonished by how absolutely, vehemently anti-Kennedy the show was.

    Scarcely a single commentator in the entire show has a good word for Kennedy. Evan Thomas, Nixon’s biographer, is given endless airtime to sneer at JFK and praise Nixon. Nixon is presented as a sort of lovable everyman klutz, while JFK is presented as a handsome but empty-headed rich man’s son. At one point, the narrator says something like “The Kennedys were doing what they did best — spend money!”, as if there were no difference between the Kennedys and the Kardashians. A viewer unfamiliar with the events described in the show would most likely come away thinking poorly of JFK, and perhaps sympathizing a bit with poor, clumsy, well-meaning Nixon.

    We are told, as if these were just uncontroversial historical facts, that JFK cheated to win both the Wisconsin primary and the November election. We are told by Pat Buchanan, of all people, that JFK and RFK were outright contemptuous of civil rights, and didn’t care about it. He even has the nerve to declare that JFK’s Democrats were “the party of slavery and secession,” while the noble Nixon represented the tradition of Abe Lincoln. (What makes this remark particularly maddening is that Buchanan himself is a proud Confederate sympathizer who detests Lincoln.) If the viewer does not already know that JFK introduced the Civil Rights Act while he was president, he will not learn it from this show.

    The episode ends with the smirking assertion — from Larry Sabato — that Nixon only turned to using “dirty tricks” because he saw how well that worked for the Kennedys. The implication being that Watergate is sort of JFK’s fault, too.

    The show left me feeling frustrated and somewhat despondent. If this is the JFK that’s being presented to today’s audiences, why would the public have any reason to care about solving his murder?

  3. James O'Neill

    @PKM. A very good contribution. I am not alone in thinking that the American University speech in June 1963 was JFK effectively signing his own death warrant. The ideas he espoused then were anathema to the military-industrial-intelligence that really run the US. He clearly had to go and that is just what happened five months later.

    1. James, why do you think the military industrial complex would be peeved at JFK? He did so much for them. Here is part of his speech in Fort Worth on the morning of his death;

      “In the past 3 years we have increased the defense budget of the United States by over 20 percent; increased the program of acquisition for Polaris submarines from 24 to 41; increased our Minuteman missile purchase program by more than 75 percent; doubled the number of strategic bombers and missiles on alert; doubled the number of nuclear weapons available in the strategic alert forces; increased the tactical nuclear forces deployed
      in Western Europe by over 60 percent; added five combat ready divisions to the Army of the United States, and five tactical fighter wings to the Air Force of the United States; increased our strategic airlift capability by 75 percent; and increased our special counter-insurgency forces which are engaged now in South Viet-Nam by 600 percent. I hope those who want a
      stronger America and place it on some signs will also place those figures next to it.” ——-John F. Kennedy, November 22, 1963.

      1. Considering why JFK went to Dallas to shore up Democratic support in right-wing “nut country”, his emphasis on military spending to that audience is perfectly understandable. One has to look beyond the obvious public politicking to see what was unfolding behind the scenes and in back-channels. Which is what “JFK and the Unspeakable” does.

        1. Dave June 15, 2014 at 12:17 am

          Yes indeed, I’m most familiar with the “you have to know what Jack really meant” school of thought.

          But the point was not why JFK gave the speech, it was to point out what he had DONE for the military-industrial complex. And he had done a lot.

        2. I must protest being referred to as “nut country”. We aren’t the ones that kept Ted Kennedy and John Kerry in the senate. Now there is some real nut country.

  4. Yes, yes and yes. There is a great turning of America’s cultural wheel with these twin speeches. A new generational course was being set at a profound level on both foreign and domestic fronts with its guiding hand a personal conscience. Perhaps one that had been consistently misled and lied to? A shrouded iceberg was emerging into clearer focus from the Potomac fog of those first couple of years (as it did for Truman and Eisenhower before him) and it left a young president who’d long pledged to follow the courage of his own conscience no other direction to steer but away and around.

  5. This is an important thread.

    Just the other night, I saw Larry King on our CTS network (Crossroads TV Stn., a Cdn private network airing mostly religious programming) interviewing actor Rob Lowe, and they touched on the movie Killing Kennedy.

    I was disappointed to hear the usual lone assassin/WC narrative, and they both discussed how Kennedy avoided civil rights rallies where today, no President would not do such a politically incorrect move. Yet, the unstated implication is that those were different times.

    However, this thread aptly points out other examples of how JFK was way ahead of his time and emerging as a unique leader and statesman.

  6. In his June 10, 1963, speech at American University, JFK talks of “peaceful settlement.” He also abhors the preemptive attack strategy attributed to the U.S. by a Soviet military paper. We now know, thanks to disclosures of previously classified discussions and thanks to books like David Kaiser’s The Road to Dallas and American Tragedy, and James Douglass’s JFK and the Unthinkable, that a preemptive attack on the Soviet Union was bruited about by the Pentagon. JFK describes the suggestion that the U.S. would consider such an attack “wholly baseless and incredible” in the American University speech. But we learned since that speech that such a strategy had been urged upon him by some.

    Also in his June 10 speech, JFK decries the military budgets on both sides that devote “massive sums of money to weapons that could be better devoted to combat ignorance, poverty, and disease.” He talks of “halting the arms race.” The lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis are clearly in mind when he says that “nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war.” He vividly alludes to “a collective death-wish for the world.”

    There are references to the burgeoning foreign policy that was evidenced in the political approach to the Laos agreements, which were reviled as appeasement in some quarters at the time. This foreign policy would hope to “convince the Soviet Union that she, too, should let each nation choose its own future, so long as that choice does not interfere with the choices of others.” This approach by JFK to self-determination for Third World countries could be considered an adumbration of a prospective Vietnam policy that he never lived to implement. It could also be viewed as a policy foreshadowed by JFK’s speeches as a senator on Indochina and Algeria in his role as a leading “anti-neocolonialist.” Vietnam is expressly referred to in his speech the next day about the draft.

    The American University speech was the public platform for JFK’s “taking this opportunity, therefore, to announce two important decisions.” The first was an agreement with Khrushchev and Macmillan to discuss a comprehensive test ban treaty. The second was to unilaterally “now declare that the United States does not propose to conduct nuclear tests in the atmosphere so long as other states do not do so.”

    Again perhaps with his speech for the following day in mind, JFK says “it is the responsibility of all citizens in all sections of this country to respect the rights of others.”

    In his June 11, 1963, Civil Rights speech, JFK specifically refers to the Civil Rights movement as a “revolution.” In doing so, he references racial issues relating to the draft: “[W]hen Americans are sent to Viet-Nam or West Berlin, we do not ask for whites only. It ought to be possible, therefore, for American students of any color to attend any public institution they select without having to be backed up by troops.”

    In short, when these two speeches were presented back-to-back, the second in a nationally televised address, major shifts in foreign and domestic policy effecting the entire American culture and economy were revealed. JFK was cognizant of the scale of the changes when he said on June 11, 1963: “A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful.” Unfortunately, it was not.

    It is interesting to further note, however, that a powerful southern senator who was a mentor of LBJ and who held such vehemently segregationist views that he led a filibuster of the Civil Right Act, Georgia Sen. Richard Russell, publicly dissented from the Warren Commission’s conclusions, and never accepted the single bullet theory. (See Sen. Richard Russell and the Great American Murder Mystery, by Donald E. Wilkes, Jr., Professor of Law, University of Georgia School of Law, http://www.law.uga.edu/dwilkes_more/jfk_20senrussell.html.)

    1. I’ve read that JFK’s American University speech was not widely reported and soon ignored. Is that true?

      When did Richard Russell make his dissent from the Warren Commission’s conclusions public?

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