President Kennedy delivers his speech from his desk in the Oval Office
|Date||June 11, 1963|
|Time||8:00–8:13 PM ET|
|Venue||Oval Office, White House|
|Location||Washington, D.C., United States|
|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 [African-American Civil Rights M]ovement 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 Malcolm X, feared the civil rights movement would take a violent turn. The depiction of 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. On February 28 Kennedy proposed a civil rights bill and sent a message to Congress.[a] In addition to the suggested economical and diplomatic benefits, he justified his legislation's measures to remove institutional racism because "above all, [racism] is wrong." Regardless, the proposal garnered a flat response. Civil rights leaders were disappointed by the proposal's failure to address segregated public accommodations or discriminatory employment practices. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference concluded that the Kennedy administration would need to be forced to fully confront racial problems. To do this, the Conference organized a series of demonstrations in April in Birmingham, Alabama—viewed by activists as one of the most segregated cities in the United States—designed to create a crisis that would require the president's involvement. The violent crackdown against demonstrators that occurred 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. In anticipation that the president might decide to follow through, the attorney general had directed his recently hired speechwriter, Richard Yates, to produce a draft. Yates began writing on the evening of June 9. Hours after giving his American University speech on the following day, 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."
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 the Big Three television networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) clear time to broadcast a statement at 8:00 PM. White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger fulfilled the task, in the process alerting the two largest national wire services, the Associated Press and United Press International. 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 approximately two hours until the broadcast at 8:00 PM,[b] no work had been done on a speech.[c] After consulting the president on what he wanted to say, Sorenson and several others, including recently arrived Robert Kennedy and Marshall, withdrew to the Cabinet Room to work on a draft. Sorenson was anxious about the deadline he had to meet, though Robert Kennedy assured him, "Don't worry. We have a lot of good material over at the Justice Department that we can send to you."
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 spoke for 13 minutes and 24 seconds. He 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.
Kennedy read most of the speech verbatim, but he dropped Sorenson's ending and improvised the last eight paragraphs.
Immediately following the address, Kennedy left the Oval Office and at 8:19 PM sat down for dinner upstairs. Meanwhile, the White House was flooded by approximately a thousand responding telegrams, of which two thirds expressed appreciation. Most of the messages from the South were disapproving. The State Department issued copies of the speech to all American diplomatic posts with specific instructions on how the material was to be shared with the international community.
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, immediately drawing domestic attention away from the event.
Martin Luther King Jr. watched the address with Walter E. Fauntroy in Atlanta. When it was over, he jumped up and declared, "Walter, can you believe that white man not only stepped up to the plate, he hit it over the fence!" He then sent a telegram to the White House, saying, "I have just listened to your speech to the nation. It was one of the most eloquent[,] profound, and unequivocal pleas for justice and freedom of all men ever made by any President. You spoke passionately for moral issues involved in the integration struggle." King had been working with other black civil rights leaders to organize a "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom" in August. They decided to reorient the focus of the demonstration to put pressure on Congress (and not Kennedy's administration) to take action. The executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Roy Wilkins, stated that while Kennedy had done well in explaining the moral issue of discrimination, he had failed to adequately address inequality in the workplace. But he later said, "This was the message I had waited to hear from him. I fell asleep that night feeling new confidence. For the first time in years, real change seemed to be at hand." Jackie Robinson, a prominent black 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. A political cartoon was printed in the Hartford Courant, mocking Kennedy's appeals to the public by showing the president pointing his finger at an audience while declaring, "And I Do Mean You!" On June 16 the The New York Times published an editorial which argued that while the president had initially "moved too slowly and with little evidence of deep moral commitment" in regards to civil rights he "now demonstrate[d] a genuine sense of urgency about eradicating racial discrimination from our national life."
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. However satisfaction among the black community was not across the board; on June 14, 3,000 protesters gathered outside the Justice Department to demand the hiring of more black employees. This irritated the attorney general, who felt that his brother was facing increased criticism due to actions taken on his advice. He promised the crowd that "[i]ndividuals would be hired according to their ability, not their color" and reiterated the message of the president's speech, calling for an end to discrimination.
Reaction from Congress was mixed. The day after the speech a motion in the House of Representatives to boost funding to the Area Redevelopment Administration as requested by Kennedy suffered a surprising defeat, 209 to 204, due to the opposition of Southern Democrats. Their rejection of the bill was widely viewed as a revolt against the president for his evolving stance on civil rights. When historian and presidential adviser Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. complemented Kennedy on his remarks, the latter bitterly replied, "Yes, and look at what happened to area development the very next day in the House." He then added, "But of course, I had to give that speech, and I'm glad that I did."
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.
In the end, the most vocal support for the civil rights bill came from the participants of the August 28 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The demonstration made Kennedy anxious but its organizers ensured that it would be used to support his legislation. The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing (in which four black choir girls were killed) in September 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." On November 22, 1963 Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Lyndon B. Johnson was immediately sworn in as president and addressed a joint session of Congress, saying, "No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long." After an intense legislative effort, the bill passed Congress and was signed into law by Johnson as the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964.
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, now assuming 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. Bauer said that the speech "marked a turning point" for the president, who then became a central figure of the civil rights movement, and signified the beginning of a "second Reconstruction" in which all three branches of the federal government worked together to ensure the rights of black Americans.
Ted Sorenson considered the address one of Kennedy's most important speeches, second only to the American University speech. In an editorial in The New York Times on June 11, 2013, historian Peniel E. Joseph wrote of the pration as "Kennedy's finest moment."
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