By Moses Kamuiru.
One of the greatest legacies celebrated by Americans about President JFK is his civil rights record. His landmark 1963 speech delivered just months before his assassination, framing civil rights as both a constitutional and moral imperative helped pave the way for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and made him an icon of the movement in his death. However, civil rights leaders who knew him and biographers who studied him told America Tonight that Kennedy was no Abraham Lincoln. Instead, they remember a more complicated figure in the movement: a leader who was more of a pragmatist than a visionary when it came to advancing the cause, and who took a long path and extreme political calculus to finally advocate for the rights he is best remembered fighting for today.
1960 presidential election
In 1960, the civil rights movement was in full swing, and neither candidate in that year’s presidential election; Kennedy and Richard Nixon, could ignore it. Almost every day, protesters led sit-ins, boycotts and peaceful marches across the country, calling for their rights under the law, equal access and opportunity, and an end to the segregation that persisted in many parts of the South. Their efforts were often met with violence and arrest. Both Kennedy and Nixon openly sympathized with African-Americans, but neither pushed concrete solutions out on the campaign trail, fearful of alienating Southern whites.
Kennedy’s Call to Coretta King
In October, then-Sen. Kennedy learned civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. had been arrested on trumped-up charges after leading a sit-in in Atlanta. His advisers had heard of King’s wife, Coretta, which she was apprehensive about her husband’s safety, fearing he could be killed in prison. “Many of President Kennedy’s advisors encouraged him not to get involved,” biographer Barbara Perry explained. But one of them, Robert Sargent Shriver, Jr., Kennedy’s soon to be brother-in-law, encouraged him to call Mrs. King. Kennedy did. “I know this must be very hard for you, and I just wanted you to know that I was thinking about you and Dr. King,” he reportedly told her. “If there is anything I can do to help, please feel free to call on me.” The next day, his brother, Robert Kennedy, made a well-placed phone call to a judge, helping secure King’s release. The moves earned Kennedy the powerful endorsement of one of the country’s most prominent civil rights leaders.
Though the civil rights movement burned on, it wasn’t until the spring of 1961 that the Kennedy administration was compelled to act. In May, a group known as the Congress of Racial Equality began organizing integrated buses traveling from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans to protest against segregation in interstate transportation. The Freedom Riders, as they became known, quickly came under attack. They were arrested in North Carolina and beaten in South Carolina. In Alabama, the violence reached new heights.
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Photo Credits: Al Jazeera