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Martin Luther King Day is tomorrow. Here is JFK's 1963 civil rights speech

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In honor of this occasion, let me excerpt part of my review of Larry Sabato's poor book, The Kennedy Half Century.  Even though Kennedy had a sterling record in this field, and King appreciated it, there are many MSM biographers who want to gain status and wealth and so they criticize JFK and RFK on the issue.  In Larry Tye's equally bad book on RFK, he does the same.  So let me remind us of what the Kennedy brothers true achievement was on this issue:

Part 1:

The other main way that Sabato tries to denude Kennedy's liberalism here is through another method, one which has been utilized by a queer combination of the regressive right and loopy left. This hoary complaint says that, somehow, President Kennedy was not really concerned about civil rights for black Americans as a senator. He then moved at a glacial pace on the issue once in the White House. I was really sorry to see that Sabato had enlisted in this kind of Fox News distortion of history. But since he does, let us correct the record.

There are three good books on this subject. They are Mr. Kennedy and the Negroes by journalist and author Harry Golden, Of Kennedys and Kings by former senator and Kennedy advisor Harris Wofford, and the classic Promises Kept  by the late UCLA professor Irving Bernstein. (It is important to this discussion that I could find no reference to either the first or last book in Sabato's footnotes.) As many on the right note, Senator Kennedy lined up against most liberals in his party on the processing of the 1957 Civil Rights Act. They did not want the House bill to go the Judiciary Committee. Because it was headed by staunch segregationist James Eastland of Mississippi. Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson was so apathetic about it that he did not back this move. Kennedy was against it. Not because he was against the overall goal. But because he thought it would create a dangerous precedent in the Senate. One that could be used against liberal Democrats in the future struggle for progressive causes. (Golden, p. 94) Kennedy felt that, if needed, the Democrats could use a discharge petition to yank the bill out of committee and onto the floor for a vote.

Unlike Fox News, Sabato does not further the myth that Kennedy voted against the act. (That myth has been exposed.) On the procedural question, Kennedy wrote a strongly worded letter to a constituent on the point. He wrote that, "I would be the first to sign a discharge petition to bring the civil rights bill to the floor." (Letter from Kennedy to Alfred Jarrette, August 1, 1957) Kennedy then added that, "I have fought long and consistently for a good civil rights bill. I was one of only 38 senators who voted to retain Title III in the present bill, the section which would extend civil rights to areas other than voting privileges" (ibid).

Edited by James DiEugenio
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Part 2:

To his credit, Sabato does note Kennedy's support for Title III. (Sabato, p. 42) But he does not explain why this was so important. That part of the act allowed the Attorney General to step in almost unilaterally in cases of, not just voting discrimination, but also school desegregation. And it allowed the use of civil actions, which could hurt municipalities in the treasury. This was clearly the most far-ranging clause in the bill. And Kennedy was one of its most ardent proponents. Because now, finally, the federal government could intercede inside the obstructionist state governments. And contrary to what Sabato writes, Kennedy trumpeted Title III at the expense of political capital. Many commentators have noted that Kennedy's outspoken stance about this aspect of the bill is what began to erode his support in the south. (Golden, p. 95)

In a practical way, what was so important about this as far as civil rights were concerned? Because once Robert Kennedy became Attorney General, the Kennedy brothers began to use that clause in a much more widespread way than Eisenhower ever imagined. But, in keeping with his agenda, Sabato does not tell you this part of the story. On the day Robert Kennedy was confirmed by the senate, Eastland reminded him, "Your predecessor never brought a civil rights case in Mississippi." (ibid, p. 100) This was true. Eisenhower only used the Title III clause ten times in three years. And two of those cases were filed on the last day of his administration. (ibid, p. 104) The day after Bobby Kennedy was approved, in response to Eastland's reminder, President Kennedy told his brother, "Get the road maps – and go!" (ibid, p. 100) In other words, start sending investigators into the backwoods of the south and start filing cases.

RFK did just that. In one year, he doubled the number of lawyers in the civil rights section of the department. At the same time he more than doubled the amount of cases Eisenhower had filed. By 1963, the number of lawyers had been nearly quintupled. (ibid, 105) The Attorney General also hired 18 legal interns to search microfilm records for discrepancies in voting statistics in suspect districts. This allowed him to open files on 61 new investigations. That remarkable number was achieved in just one year. (Ibid, p. 105) This had been a preplanned strategy by JFK. In October of 1960, at a meeting of his civil rights campaign advisory board, Kennedy told them this was the method he had decided upon to break the back of voting discrimination in the south. (ibid, p. 139)

These facts blow up the myth that Sabato is trying to propagate about Kennedy and civil rights. But let us go further in order to show just how agenda-driven the author really is.

When Kennedy became president, it was clear that neither the Brown vs. Board decision of 1954, nor the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 were having any strong effect in increasing the black vote in the south. The eight states with the lowest turnout figures in the 1960 election were all in the south. It was obvious that even with those three laws on the books, Eisenhower's enforcement of them was so lacking in rigor that the southern states felt no real compunction to obey them. And clearly, Eisenhower and Nixon had given those state governments a nod and a wink in this regard. For instance, in 1956 Eisenhower had told a reporter that the Brown vs. Board decision had set back progress in the south at least 15 years. (John Emmet Hughes, The Ordeal of Power, pgs. 200-01) Vice-President Nixon echoed this attitude. He said, "... if the law goes further than public opinion can be brought along to support at a particular time, it may prove to do more harm than good." (Golden, p. 61)

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Part 3:

This was a self-fulfilling prophecy. The law was not going to go very far because, in fact, it was not being supported to any real degree. This created entrenched resistance to a piecemeal approach. In other words, it might take several years to challenge each district in court. What the Kennedys did next was to try and bypass going district by district in their legal actions. They now decided to collect data on whole states to present in court. This is how President Kennedy took on Eastland's home state in the case of United States vs. Mississippi. President Kennedy was pleased with the approach. Across the Justice Department's 1962 report, he scrawled "Keep pushing the cases." (Golden, p. 111)

President Kennedy was also sensitive about the lack of black Americans employed in branches of government, including the armed services. Therefore, he appointed the illustrious civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall to the federal bench in 1961. Through Abraham Bolden we know he didn't like the fact that there were no black Americans on the White House Secret Service detail. On his inauguration day, he commented to Lyndon Johnson that there were no black Americans in the Coast Guard marching detail. That evening he learned that there had never been a black student at the Coast Guard Academy. This was remedied in 1962. (Bernstein, p. 52) At one of the first Cabinet meetings he noted that there were only ten African American lawyers employed by the federal government. That figure went up by a factor of seven in six months. (Golden, pgs. 114-15)

In March of 1961, just two months after being inaugurated, Kennedy first proposed an executive order decreeing there would be no racial discrimination in hiring by contractors working for the federal government. This was signed into law nine months later. In two years, 1700 complaints were heard. Over 70% of the cases ended with the employer being disciplined. Under Eisenhower, only six such suits were ever brought. (Golden, p. 60)

But Kennedy went further. He got 100 large private corporations to sign onto this agreement voluntarily. He also got 117 labor unions to pledge they would fight for the cause and report hiring discrimination on the job. He then ordered the Labor Department to investigate discrimination in apprenticeship and training programs. (ibid) This attitude, as opposed to the implicit acceptance of the status quo by Eisenhower and Nixon, encouraged thousands of complaints to be filed.

As a result, by 1963 in South Carolina, black Americans were – for the first time – working alongside whites in advanced positions in textile mills. The superintendent explained it in practical economic terms: if the black Americans were not hired, the company would lose government contracts. If that happened, they would have to close their doors. (Helen Fuller, Year of Trial, p. 131) Again, these kinds of acts cost Kennedy plenty of votes in the south. It hurt him because, unlike with Eisenhower, he actually spoke about the problem and then acted independently of the Supreme Court. With Eisenhower and the Little Rock crisis, commentators could blame the federal intervention on Earl Warren. That was not the case with Kennedy and his new measures. Especially since, on May 6, 1961, Robert Kennedy spoke at the University of Georgia's Law Day. There he announced that, unlike Eisenhower, he would vigorously pursue the implementation of the Brown vs. Board decision.

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Just now, James DiEugenio said:

Part 4:


Like others, Sabato criticizes Kennedy for not issuing an executive order on housing as he did on employment until two years after his election. (Sabato , p. 111) As Fuller made clear in her book, this was because Kennedy thoroughly understood that if he signed it earlier, he could never attain other pieces of legislation that were important to him. The entrenched southern power barons in congress would retaliate. (Fuller, pgs. 37-42) In fact, after he signed the housing bill, Senators John Stennis and Richard Russell voted against his test ban treaty. Another example of this occurred when Kennedy tried to create a new cabinet department, Housing and Urban Development. He announced that African American Robert Weaver would be the Secretary for the new department. The House Rules Committee then rejected the proposal. (Golden, p. 121) These were very real concerns that Kennedy rightfully anticipated.


Robert Kennedy sent a progress report each week to his brother about the court actions in his voting rights cases. At the end of 1962, he told the president it would be all over by 1968. (ibid, p. 131) But something else happened in the meantime. By getting out in front of the issue, and by signing two important executive orders (on employment and housing) President Kennedy was fulfilling the symbolic agreement he had made in the 1960 campaign. This was when he and his brother intervened in the Georgia jail case of Martin Luther King. An incident which Sabato spends about eight words on. (Sabato, p. 70) Through their intervention, King was released from some trumped up charges.


By openly allying himself with King, Kennedy was giving the civil rights movement ballast and hope. After he won the White House, this encouraged the movement leaders to become more active under his presidency than they had ever been before. So now a certain synergy entered into the equation. Something that would not have happened under Eisenhower and Nixon. In fact, Harris Wofford had written a memo to Kennedy in December of 1960 stating the major problem with civil rights had been the fact that there had been no real leadership in the executive branch or congress to supplement the work of the courts.


In that memo, Wofford essentially mapped out the path Kennedy should take. He said that in 1961 there did not seem to be any way to get a real omnibus civil rights law through the senate because of the almost guaranteed filibuster by the southerners. Wofford proposed changing the cloture rules on filibuster to circumvent that tactic. Which is something that Kennedy had mentioned in his above referenced 1957 letter to Alfred Jarrette. In the meantime, Wofford proposed that Kennedy use executive actions to advance the cause.


Kennedy immediately did so by shifting the balance of power on the Commission on Civil Rights. This was a body set up by the 1957 Civil Rights Act. It had the power to launch investigations, hold hearings and make recommendations as far as exposing discriminatory laws went. Eisenhower had made it a rather moderate agency. He manned it with two integrationists, two segregationists, and two middle of the roaders. In March of 1961, Kennedy had an opportunity to make two new appointments. In doing so he tilted the balance toward the integrationists. He furthered this aim by also naming a staff director who was also an integrationist. (Bernstein, pgs. 50-51)


Kennedy also urged a kind of affirmative action program for all the cabinet level departments. He wanted figures on how many black Americans were employed by each department secretary. When the numbers were returned, he made it clear they were not nearly satisfactory. This sent each secretary scrambling to find suitable black employees in order not to be dressed down by the president at the next meeting. (ibid, p. 53) Kennedy also made it clear that he would not attend functions at any institution that practiced segregation. This created a wave of resignations by White House employees from such places like athletic clubs and golf courses. (ibid)


It was against this drastically new backdrop that the civil rights movement now began to truly assert itself e.g. the Freedom Riders, King's SCLC, James Farmer's CORE. For instance, James Meredith sent away for his application to the University of Mississippi the day after Kennedy was inaugurated. (Bernstein, p. 76) For as Wofford and Bernstein have written, there was never any doubt that Kennedy would support these groups. (Ibid, p. 65) In fact, the White House arranged financing in some cases for them to launch voter registration drives. It was simply a matter of what tactics would be used. But there was a byproduct to these dramatic confrontations e.g. Nicolas Katzenbach removing George Wallace from the front gate at the University of Alabama, President Kennedy calling out the military to quell the violence over Meredith at Ole Miss, Robert Kennedy ordering 500 marshals into Montgomery to protect the Freedom Riders. That was this: the more these ugly confrontations were televised, the more people outside the south became repelled by the actions of the white southerners. In other words, through television, the incidents had a dual effect: the spectacles began to turn people who had previously been apathetic on the subject into civil rights advocates. In turn, this began to isolate the segregationists of the south. Through that double movement, the balance of power began to shift in congress away from Eastland and toward Kennedy and King.


As Wofford, Robert Kennedy and Bernstein have all noted, the culminating showdown was in Birmingham, Alabama. With a black population of forty per cent, it was probably the most segregated big city in the south. For example, although it was industrialized, less than five per cent of the Hayes Aircraft workforce was black. (ibid, p. 85) The symbol of Birmingham's unstinting fealty to segregation was Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene "Bull" Connor. Connor was so defiant in the face of Bobby Kennedy's attempts to integrate the south that he called him a "bobby-soxer" and challenged him to a fistfight. (ibid, p. 86) Because of these factors, the city was a prime target for demonstrations. King had an executive meeting of the SCLC in January of 1962 to plan the assault on Birmingham.




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Part 5:

As everyone knows, Connor played into the hands of Kennedy and King. The images captured by TV cameras of Connor unleashing savage police attack dogs, and using powerful fire department hoses against young boys and girls, these were a media sensation. Birmingham became the magazine, newspaper and television capital of America. President Kennedy sent Burke Marshall, head of the civil rights division, to negotiate an agreement to end the violence. Both King and Robert Kennedy called the agreement a great victory. (Bernstein, p. 92)

Comedian/activist Dick Gregory had been in Birmingham from the beginning. On the night after Connor unleashed the German Shepherds and hoses, he returned home. His wife was waiting for him when he arrived after midnight. She told him that President Kennedy had called. He had left a message that he wanted Gregory to call him when he got in. Gregory noted the late hour. His wife replied with, "He said it didn't matter what time it was." So Gregory called the White House and Kennedy picked up the phone. He said, "Dick, I need to know everything that happened down there." Gregory went on for about 10 minutes detailing the whole sorry spectacle. When he was done, Kennedy exclaimed, "We've got those bastards now!" Gregory, overcome with emotion, began to weep. (2003 radio interview with Gregory)

After this, Kennedy now wrote his civil rights act, made his memorable national speech the night Medgar Evers was murdered, and supervised – and supplemented with white union members – King's March on Washington. For all intents and purposes the battle had been won. Because as Kennedy predicted in November of 1963, and as Thurston Clarke proved in his book, the civil rights act was going to pass the next year. As both Johnson and Kennedy understood, the key in the senate was Everett Dirksen, who JFK had good relations with.

Now, anyone looking at the above précis would have to conclude the obvious: Kennedy did more for the civil rights of black Americans in three years than the previous 18 presidents had done in a century. That includes Harry Truman, Franklin Roosevelt and the so-called progressive presidents: Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt and Taft. Sabato, of course, is aware of all this. But because of his agenda, he can't admit it. In fact, you will see little, if any, of the above in The Kennedy Half Century. Even though it is accepted history. To be frank, I am a little disturbed that I had to dust off my books and consult them to correct Sabato's Orwellian attempt to turn Kennedy into the equivalent of a Tennessee congressman on civil rights. It's a similar trick to what Tom Brokaw and Gus Russo did for their tacky TV special. But this is what happens when one deals with the politically charged Kennedy case. It's simply not enough to distort the facts of his assassination. The attempt at abridgement extends out from his murder, and into his presidency.

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Jim - Thanks for always setting the record straight. I experienced it personally a few years ago when you corrected me here when I expressed my opinion that Mary Pinchot and LSD changed JFK (it may have anyway, but he was already the progressive you consistently show him to be). 

Every MLK day I tune in to KPFA. The station has a remarkable and deep archive from which they draw on days like this. Today was no exception. I heard a speech delivered in Hollywood a few weeks before he was murdered, in which he makes clear that racism and poverty were inseparable, and that the Vietnam War was an evil that needed to be brought to an end. He articulated his plan to bring his movement to DC for at least 60 days to bring the the nation's and the world's attention to these truths. As always, I am brought to tears at some point when I listen to him. What a difference between his  deep soulful words and by contrast the high sounding but somewhat empty rhetoric of President Obama. What does the 'audacity of hope' mean anyway? Why the cheers? I'll give Obama his due, but just saying...

i was fortunate indeed that my parents brought be to DC for the 1963 march. It changed me forever. 


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Thanks Paul.  

I am reviewing this guy Larry Tye's equally bad book on RFK.  He does the same thing that phony Larry Sabato does.  And he uses the same tactics, abridgment of the record.

BTW, about that March on Washington, President Kennedy was the first white politician to endorse it in public. He shocked everyone, including RFK when he did so at a press conference in July.  He then called up the AG and said words to the effect:  I am putting you in charge of this rally and it better come off perfectly, because if it does not, our enemies will use it to destroy us.

Well, it did come off perfectly.  Ralph Abernathy said it was the greatest day of his life.  And do you know how all those white people got there?  RFK did to want it to look like it was solely a black demonstration.  So he called up his friend Walter Reuther and told him to bus in as many of his UAW members as he could.

 Can you imagine how different this country would have been if they had not all been murdered?

Edited by James DiEugenio
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In that regard, I should pass something on to you.  It will be in my review of Tye's book.

I don't know if I knew this, or if I forgot it.  I probably forgot it since I read Schlesinger's bio of RFK so long ago.

But near the end of that book, he writes that it was RFK who suggested to King that he put together a Poor People's March.  Is that something or what? A millionaire suggesting a poor people's demonstration to a civil rights leade back in 1967.

One other point.  In early 1968, before LBJ dropped out of the primary race, King was discussing who the SCLC should support for the Democratic nomination.  King said there is no question who they will support, it will be Robert Kennedy.

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