How Did President Kennedy Respond to the Violence in Birmingham

How Did President Kennedy Respond to the Violence in Birmingham

JFK | Article

JFK and Ceremonious Rights

On the evening of May three, 1963, Americans watched on boob tube as Martin Luther King Jr.’due south campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama collapsed under a moving ridge of officially sanctioned violence. Birmingham police force attacked peaceful black demonstrators with clubs, dogs, and high-pressure fire hoses, and for the showtime fourth dimension many citizens understood the latitude of America’south racial divide. Mayhap no one regarded the events with more anguish than President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The violence in Birmingham proved that Kennedy’s piecemeal arroyo to civil rights had failed.

Martin Luther King. and cabinet meeting , Baronial 5 , 1965. Courtesy: Library of Congress

Elected president in 1960, Kennedy had campaigned on an idealistic New Frontier platform. The president believed that by showing the world what a free and autonomous society had to offer, the Usa could ensure the defeat of Communism. Unfortunately, since Kennedy had taken office, the earth had seen the negative side of America — intolerance and oppression. Despite Constitutional assurances to the contrary, African Americans were treated as 2d class citizens. They were oft denied access to public facilities, prohibited from exercising their voting rights, and subjected to racist violence.

Under leaders such equally Rex, African Americans organized nonviolent protests to gain access to public facilities. They sued in the courts for equal treatment, and used the pulpits and the press to eloquently state the case for full citizenship. And they implored their president to take a forceful public stand by issuing a call for comprehensive civil rights legislation. For the first two years of his administration, Kennedy ignored the call.

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The Democrats held a narrow majority in Congress, and many of the Democratic seats were held by Southerners who opposed civil rights legislation. The president needed the white Southern vote to win reelection in 1964. And so Kennedy adopted a cautious arroyo to civil rights, emphasizing enforcement of existing laws over the creation of new ones.

Kennedy pushed ceremonious rights on many fronts. He ordered his chaser full general to submit friends of the court briefs on behalf of civil rights litigants. He appointed African Americans to positions within his assistants, named Thurgood Marshall to the 2nd Circuit Courtroom of Appeals in New York, and supported voter registration drives.

But such an approach was problematic. By non addressing civil rights publicly and comprehensively, Kennedy was forced to address racial incidents on a case by case basis — oft after they had escalated to violence. In May, 1961, racists attacked Freedom Riders traveling past jitney from Washington, D.C. to Birmingham, Alabama. Kennedy sent federal marshals to protect the protesters. But even armed marshals could not guarantee protection.

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James Meredith at the University of Mississippi at Oxford, Courtesy: Library of Congress

In September 1962, James Meredith, a black human, attempted to register at the segregated University of Mississippi at Oxford. Kennedy had brokered a deal with segregationist governor Ross Barnett. The registration would occur on a Sunday, when opposition forces were least probable to be active. Federal marshals would be there to protect Meredith. Merely as Kennedy prematurely announced Meredith’s successful registration on national television, marshals were fighting — and losing — a battle to control fierce segregationists at the university.

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If this incident embarrassed the Kennedy assistants, it did little to change the president’south approach to ceremonious rights. Activists asked Kennedy to issue an executive order ending discrimination in Federal mortgage loans. He put off the action for months, and issued a watered-downward order in Nov of 1962. In February, 1963, he sent a civil rights package to Congress which included legislation to secure black voting rights. That the beak failed to address access to public facilities — a major point of contention for ceremonious rights activists — was a moot point. The president did little to promote the beak’southward passage, and it quickly expired.

Kennedy’due south approach to ceremonious rights was viewed, by civil rights leaders, every bit noncommittal. Only the violence in Birmingham on May three of 1963 left him no pick only to alter his course. The nightsticks, the police force dogs, and the fire hoses had revealed a glimpse of what America could become. Unless Kennedy took a firm stand up, the New Frontier might deteriorate into a encarmine race war.

On the evening of June 11, just hours afterward federal marshals had escorted black students to their dormitories at the Academy of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, the president delivered a televised accost to the nation. Speaking with conviction, Kennedy appear he would ship comprehensive ceremonious rights legislation to Congress. The parcel would include provisions for access to public facilities, voting rights, and technical and monetary support for school desegregation.

“The heart of the question,” the president said, “is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and opportunities.” The answer from those who opposed civil rights came later that evening, when segregationist Byron de La Beckwith shot and killed Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s Mississippi field secretary.

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Five months later, Kennedy himself was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Comprehensive civil rights legislation had non yet passed. It would exist upward to Lyndon Baines Johnson, Kennedy’s successor — and to committed activists across the nation — to resume the battle for equality.

Kennedy’s failure to secure meaningful civil rights legislation was emblematic of other stalled domestic policy initiatives introduced by his administration. His efforts to cut taxes and increase funding for educational activity besides died in Congress. At the end of his brief presidency, much of the vivid promise of the New Frontier had nonetheless to be fulfilled.

How Did President Kennedy Respond to the Violence in Birmingham