I’ve always gathered that President John Kennedy had his head in the right place about civil rights, but he was a bit soft in the gut when it came to pushing for change in ways that really mattered. But on this, the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s 6.11.63 civil rights speech, N.Y. Times op-ed contributor Peniel E. Joseph claims that his influence was more significant than generally understood, especially from the standpoint of complacent white America and the Eisenhower mindset that most lived by at the time.
“June 11, 1963 may not be a widely recognized date these days, but it might have been the single most important day in civil rights history,” he states. Gov. George Wallace attempted to block the integration of the University of Alabama. Boston N.A.A.C.P. leaders confronted Louise Day Hicks over public school segregation. Civil rights leader Medgar Evers was murdered just after midnight that day. And JFK delivered a hastily prepared nationwide speech that called the civil rights struggle, for the first time, a “moral issue.”
“It seems obvious today that civil rights should be spoken of in universal terms, but at the time many white Americans still saw it as a regional, largely political question,” Joseph reminds. “And yet here was the leader of the country, asking ‘every American, regardless of where he lives,’ to ‘stop and examine his conscience.’
“Kennedy [then] eloquently linked the fate of African-American citizenship to the larger question of national identity and freedom. ‘For all its hopes and all its boasts,” observed Kennedy, “America will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.’
“Perhaps the most significant part of the speech came near the end, when Kennedy, borrowing directly from the movement’s rhetoric, recognized the civil rights struggle as part of a political and cultural revolution sweeping the land — again, an obvious point to anyone on the other side of the 1960s, but not to a white population still living in the stifling bliss of the Eisenhower era.
“Kennedy not only reported the revolution, but invited Americans of all backgrounds to engage in the kind of civic activism that reflects the tough work of democracy, [dclaring that] ‘a great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all.'”