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Dale Banham

Student Question: JFK and Civil Rights

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My Year 10 (aged 14-15) are now starting on a piece of coursework: 'Why is JFK remembered so positively?'. I have attached the questions they came up with in groups. Answers and different views from experts would be great for when we start back in September or for pupils to look at over the Summer.

Question: How important was JFK’s contribution to the civil rights cause? Did he do more than any President before or since?

Edited by Dale Banham

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No, it was very difficult for Kennedy to concentrate on the Civil Rights issue. Although he gave his support to the Civil Rights movement during his campaign, he found that public opinion polls in 1960 and 1961 showed that when people were asked "What needs to be done in America to advance society?" Civil Rights were not very high on the list.

International issues also made it rather difficult for Kennedy to focus on domestic issues. The attention Kennedy did give to the problems at home were mostly for improving health care and helping the lowest income workers. Kennedy did see this as a way to help African-Americans since he knew that his interest in those two issues would be good for both races.

Kennedy did make a few small contributions to the Civil Rights movement which included:

* Appointing more blacks to federal government posts. He appointed 40 to senior federal government positions including five as federal judges

*Appointing Robert Kennedy as head of the Justice Department which would eventually bring 57 lawsuits against local officials for obstructing the African-American's right to vote

*Blocking Washington Redskins stadium from use until the team signed black players

*The creation of CEEO (Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity) whose job was to ensure that all employees of the federal government received equal employment opportunities

But in many ways, Kennedy was powerless. If he helped blacks in the South, he would have lost support of the powerful Democrats there but if he had done nothing, he would have been condemned worldwide. If he helped blacks in the North, the white majority would have felt that there problems were being ignored while blacks' problems were being addressed.

Edited by Paul Kerrigan

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For an understanding of John and Robert Kennedy’s views on Civil Rights I would suggest the reading of three books: Richard D. Mahoney’s Sons and Brothers (1999), Harris Wofford’s Of Kennedys and Kings (1980) and Robert Kennedy’s In His Own Words (1988).

These books make it clear that the Kennedy brothers were not terribly interested in Civil Rights when they gained power. Nor did they feel they could do very much about this situation. Robert pointed out in an interview given in 1964 that JFK was only elected because of the deals they had done with racist politicians from the Deep South such as Richard Russell, James Eastland and Helman Talmadge. This was an agreement not to get involved in civil right issues in their territory. Another part of the deal was to tackle the power of the labour unions in the South. Make no mistake, there was nothing liberal about the Kennedy brothers in 1960.

Harris Wofford was appointed Special Assistant to President Kennedy in 1960. He was someone who was a strong believer in equal civil rights. This created problems for the Kennedys. RFK later admitted that he advised his brother from appointing Wofford as head of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department “because he was so committed on civil rights emotionally”. RFK wanted a compromiser like Burke Marshall (who was eventually appointed to the post).

RFK later confessed that JFK was forced into taking action on civil rights. This happened because of the actions of the Freedom Riders and people like Martin Luther King and James Meredith. Behind the scenes JFK and RFK did what they could to persuade these men and women to call off their campaigns. They refused and forced the Kennedy administration into taking some difficult decisions.

I think it is probably fair to say that by 1963 JFK and RFK did believe in equal civil rights. After all, events had helped change their minds about a whole range of issues. By this time it was probably true that they were indeed liberals (although they did what they could do disguise this as they felt it would lose them the 1964 election). However, it did not really matter what they thought about civil rights, they knew they would never get it through Congress.

The interesting point is that it was LBJ who got the civil rights legislation passed. This is indeed very strange. LBJ had been a long time hardliner against civil rights legislation. He had even been opposed to anti-lynching legislation being passed by Congress. LBJ only reflected the thoughts of his financial backers. LBJ was also involved in employing a smear campaign against Ralph Yarborough, the only prominent white politician in the Deep South in favour of equal civil rights.

When LBJ signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act he made a prophecy that he was “signing away the south for 50 years”. This proved accurate. In fact, the Democrats have never recovered the vote of the white racists in the Deep South. The big question is why did he do it? There is no doubt that without his ability to bully southern Democrats into submission, the bill would never have been passed. He also sacrificed the support of his financial backers in Texas. Although by this time LBJ was an extremely rich man and could afford to retire in comfort.

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My Year 10 (aged 14-15) are now starting on a piece of coursework: 'Why is JFK remembered so positively?'. I have attached the questions they came up with in groups. Answers and different views from experts would be great for when we start back in September or for pupils to look at over the Summer.

Question: How important was JFK’s contribution to the civil rights cause? Did he do more than any President before or since?

It cannot be said that JFK did more for civil rights than any President before or since. His presidency did relatively little for civil rights in a practical sense, but he put the moral authority of his office behind the concept, which laid the groundwork for later progress. During the campaign, he talked about things that a President could accomplish "with the stroke of a pen," through executive orders (the way FDR integrated the armed forces during World War Two, and Truman took further actions), but when this hadn't happened after months of waiting, civil rights organizations began mailing pens to the White House.

The major civil rights acts were passed during the administration of Lyndon Johnson, a master politician who knew how to use the Kennedy legacy to get them through.

Martin Shackelford

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I'd like to add that LBJ claimed, and we have no reason to doubt, that he was sincerely concerned about racism and civil rights, due to his experience as a teacher of poor children of Mexican descent. On this he differed from many of his friends, including John Connally. Not coincidentally, LBJ had strong support from the latino population throughout his political life. It should also be pointed out that after his brother's death, Bobby Kennedy came to be a genuine voice for civil rights, and was one of the few white politicians to publicly embrace both Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez.

There are those, and I'm one of them, who suspect that LBJ attempted to purge the sins of his complicity in Kennedy's death through pushing through the civil rights legislation Kennedy had proposed. LBJ was a complicated man, and left the Presidency in disgrace, filled with remorse and bitterness. If he had left a diary it would have been fascinating. As it is we have his memoirs, The Vantage Point, which is as difficult to read as Nixon's memoirs, RN, due to their both being so full of self-serving clap-trap at odds with the memories of everyone around them.

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JFK, as congressman or senator, did less in favor of minorities than LBJ... JFK was a low profile politician who was aiming at the presidency and he played it safe till november 60...

During his presidency, the civil rights issue came out as an hot potatoe. A critic said of JFK that it would be better for him to show more courage and less profile... The Kennedys tried to moderate Black leaders, asked them to be more patient, but they were unable to do something concrete about that and they refuse to use LBJ's political influence to pressure the Congress...

Most of Civil Rights legislations were passed during the Johnson's Presidency, and for LBJ, Civil Rights' issue was politically a suicide... I think that, for exemple, the Housing Bill contributed more to LBJ's political downfall than Vietnam War...

-Pierre Carbonneau

P..S: I think that Earl Warren, as Chief Justice, is the character in American history who helped more to boost the Civil Rights issue with his Brown vs Board of Education judgment in 1954 and it sequels...

Edited by Pierre Carbonneau

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Question: How important was JFK’s contribution to the civil rights cause? Did he do more than any President before or since?

Martin wrote:

It cannot be said that JFK did more for civil rights than any President before or since. His presidency did relatively little for civil rights in a practical sense, but he put the moral authority of his office behind the concept, which laid the groundwork for later progress.

Martin is certainly right, as is Pat. It was LBJ (perhaps out of guilt) who advanced the civil rights agenda that had been endorsed (at first reluctantly) by JFK. But it was the death of JFK that created the atmosphere that allowed the adoption of the civil rights legislation of the mid-sixties.

I do not think JFK was killed as a result of his stand on civil rights (although that possibility. of course exists) But his death did, in fact, do more to advance the cause of civil rights. So I think that the advancement of civil rights (and with it the advancement of our culture) is indeed part of the Kennedy legacy.

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