Kennedy delivers his speech from the Oval Office
|Date||June 11, 1963|
|Venue||Oval Office, White House|
The Civil Rights Address or the Report to the American People on Civil Rights was a speech on civil rights, delivered on radio and television by United States President John F. Kennedy from the Oval Office on June 11, 1963 in which he proposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The address transformed civil rights from a legal issue to a moral one.
In the Civil Rights Address, Kennedy explained the economic, educational, and moral dimensions of racial discrimination. The president further announced that he would be submitting legislation to Congress to ensure equal access to public accommodations, education and to address other aspects of discrimination.
On May 21, 1963 a federal district judge ruled that the University of Alabama must allow two black students to be admitted for its summer courses, starting in June. Alabama Governor George Wallace was determined to, at the least, make a public display of opposing the order.
As the ensuing standoff intensified, Kennedy debated with his staff over the value of giving a speech. He himself was unsure of the idea and his senior advisers were opposed to it, with the exception of his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who supported the proposition. Hours after giving his American University speech on June 10, President Kennedy met with his top aides to discuss the issue. Robert Kennedy said, "Well, we've got a draft which doesn't fit all these points, but it's something to work with, and there's some pretty good sentences and paragraphs." The president then concluded the meeting, saying, "It will help us get ready anyway, because we may want to do it tomorrow." In reality, no such draft existed.
On June 11, Governor Wallace stood in the doorway of Foster Auditorium to prevent the black students from registering for classes. Shortly after noon Kennedy, unsure of what Wallace would do, requested that television networks clear time to broadcast a statement at 8:00 PM. Less than three hours after the standoff began, Wallace yielded to Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and National Guard General Henry V. Graham. Kennedy and his staff watched the situation resolve on television. Kennedy's speechwriter, Ted Sorenson, figured that with the confrontation over, no speech would be given. But Kennedy thought the moment was opportune to educate the public on civil rights and follow through with appropriate legislation. Turning his chair towards Sorenson, Kennedy said, "We better give that civil rights speech tonight." Deputy Attorney General Burke Marshall said of Robert Kennedy's influence on the decision, "He urged it, he felt it, he understood it, and he prevailed. I don't think there was there was anybody in the Cabinet—except the president himself—who felt that way on these issues, and the president got it from his brother."
With roughly six hours until the broadcast at 8:00 PM, no work had been done on a speech. After consulting the president on what he wanted to say, Sorenson and several others, including Robert Kennedy and Marshall, withdrew to the Cabinet Room to work on a draft.
At around 7:00 PM President Kennedy checked in on the group's progress. Sorenson had managed to create two drafts, one incomplete, and was still revising them. Kennedy remarked, "C'mon Burke, you must have some ideas." At 7:40 PM the Kennedy brothers met in the Oval Office to outline an extemporaneous speech in case Sorenson wasn't able to finish a draft. The president wrote notes on an envelope and available scrap paper. Less than five minutes before 8:00 PM, Sorenson entered the room and presented him with a draft. Kennedy told Sorenson later that evening, "For the first time, I thought I was going to have to go off the cuff." Robert Kennedy suggested that his brother, then glancing over the writing, still improvise parts of the speech, later saying, "I think that probably, if he had given it [entirely] extemporaneously, it would have been as good or better."
Kennedy opened his speech by briefly reviewing the integration of the University of Alabama. He stated that he ordered the National Guard to the college "to carry out the final and unequivocal order of the United States District Court of the Northern District of Alabama". From there Kennedy mentioned that the United States military recruited non-whites to serve abroad and added that for their equal expectation to serve they were entitled to equal treatment within the country.
In his speech Kennedy called Americans to recognize civil rights as a moral cause to which all people need to contribute and was ..."as clear as the American Constitution". He conveyed how the proposed legislation would lead the nation to end discrimination against African Americans. It would also provide equal treatment to all African Americans.
After watching the address in Atlanta, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his compliments to Kennedy. He also privately declared, "Can you believe that white man not only stepped up to the plate, he hit it over the fence!" King called the president's civil rights proposals "the most sweeping and forthright ever presented by an American president." He went on to predict the legislation would "take the Nation a long, long way toward the realization of the ideals of freedom and justice for all people."
On June 19 Kennedy sent his civil rights bill to Congress. In addition to his proposals made in February, the bill called for equal accommodations in public facilities, provisions for the attorney general to initiate school desegregation suits, new programs to ensure fair employment practices including support of a Fair Employment Practice Committee, the establishment of a Community Relations Service, and the granting of authority to the federal government to withhold funds from programs and activities in which discrimination occurred.
Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson had misgivings about the success of a civil rights bill, at least until appropriations were passed. At the same time, civil rights leaders, though recognizing the fact that the bill was most the most comprehensive civil rights legislation to ever be considered by Congress, wanted more provisions.
Seven months after Kennedy was assassinated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law on July 2, 1964.
Ted Sorenson considered the address one of Kennedy's most important speeches, second only to the American University speech.
In an editorial on June 11, 2013, Peniel E. Joseph wrote of the speech as "Kennedy's finest moment."