President Kennedy delivers his speech from the Oval Office
|Date||June 11, 1963|
|Venue||Oval Office, White House|
|Also known as||Report to the American People on Civil Rights|
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.
Up until June 1963, President John F. Kennedy had been relatively silent on the issue of civil rights in the United States, preferring weak executive action to legislative solutions. However, his position on the matter had begun to evolve during the Freedom Rides of 1961. Though he dispatched federal marshals to guard against the racial violence of the events, he publicly stressed that his actions were rooted in legality and not morality; American citizens had a constitutional right to travel, and he was simply enforcing that right. The Kennedy administration was cautious not to distance the South by infringing upon States' rights.
In 1962 James Meredith, a black man, enrolled at the University of Mississippi. Although Kennedy used federal troops to guarantee Meredith's safety and attendance, he publicly downplayed the violence that had occurred and made no changes to his legislative agenda. Despite being pleased that the federal government had protected Meredith, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was reportedly "deeply disappointed" in the president. Following the failure of the Albany Movement in 1962, it appeared to many civil rights activists that Kennedy "was more concerned with quieting the movement down than removing the practices it opposed."
In 1963 an increasing number of white Americans, troubled by the rise of more militant black leaders like Malcom X, feared the civil rights movement would take a violent turn. The depiction racial violence in the media also benefited the Soviet Union's Cold War propaganda and damaged the United States' image abroad, something about which Kennedy was greatly concerned. Appropriate legislation would enable the administration to pursue suits through the court system and get the problem "out of the streets" and away from international spectators. In February Kennedy proposed a civil rights bill to Congress. In addition to the suggested economical and diplomatic benefits, he justified his legislation's measures to remove institutional racism because "above all, it is wrong." The violent crackdown against demonstrators during the Birmingham campaign in May reportedly disturbed Kennedy, but he refrained from directly intervening because he didn't believe he had a legal basis to do so. The civil conflict attracted global attention, especially from African leaders who were scheduled to assemble for a conference in Addis Ababa.
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 on the matter. 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 in the White House 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 in the White House afterwards. 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." Historian Carl Brauer has argued that the most important factor in Kennedy's choice was his own reputation and perception as a decisive leader, which had been compromised by the events in Birmingham.
With only a few 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 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.
The address was Kennedy's most dramatic statement on American civil rights. It transformed the subject from a legal issue to a moral one. It also marked a significant shift in policy for the Kennedy administration, which assumed the goals of the civil rights movement. The emotional impact of the address was enhanced by the fact that it had occurred only one day after Kennedy's American University Speech, putting it in the context of a greater political moment.
Later that night civil rights activist Medgar Evers, who had been listening to the speech on the radio, was assassinated as he returned to his home in Jackson, Mississippi, almost immediately drawing domestic attention away from the event.
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." Jackie Robinson, a Republican and skeptic of Kennedy, announced that he would vote to reelect the president in the upcoming election.
The morning after the broadcast, a panel moderated by Richard D. Heffner discussed the content of the address on the Metromedia program The American Experience. Participants in the televised debate included Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X, New York editor of Ebony Allan Morrison, Congress of Racial Equality executive director James Farmer, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference executive director Wyatt Tee Walker.
International reaction to the address was very positive. In the United States, Kennedy's approval rating among southern whites immediately dropped, though it later made a partial recovery. Black Americans' view of Kennedy also shifted, though positively, with one September poll suggesting he would have 95% of the black vote in an election against conservative Senator Barry Goldwater.
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. In a speech before a joint session, Kennedy implored Congress to pass it, warning that legislative inaction would result in "continued, if not increased, racial strife—causing the leadership on both sides to pass from the hands of reasonable and responsible men to the purveyors of hate and violence, endangering domestic tranquility, retarding our Nation's economic and social progress and weakening the respect with which the rest of the world regards us."
Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson had misgivings about the success of a civil rights bill, at least until appropriations were passed. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield was convinced that mandating the desegregation of public accommodations was unconstitutional. 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. Meanwhile, members of the Kennedy administration lobbied in Congress. Secretary of State Dean Rusk spoke of the Soviet Union's efforts to portray the United States as racist while Robert Kennedy testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on conditions in the segregated South. The president wanted the bill to pass before the November elections, so as to not become a central campaign issue.
The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing increased public support for the civil rights bill, but legislative progress stagnated in Congress due to the efforts of southern Democrats and conservative Republicans. In spite of this, Kennedy remained optimistic, commenting in his last-ever press conference on November 14, "However dark the land looks now, I think that 'westward look, the land is bright,' and I think that next summer it may be." 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."