JFK Embraced the Civil Rights Movement

President's support for an end to segregation proved a turning point.

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The 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination is Friday. This is one of a series of blogs in which I analyze key aspects of his presidency and assess what they mean for us today.

One of President Kennedy's biggest achievements was a historic embrace of the civil rights movement.

Kennedy seemed to have little or no interest in civil rights when he first took office. The most contact he had with African Americans was with the valet who prepared his clothes and drew his baths. At first, Kennedy expected that his presidency would be absorbed with superpower relations and issues associated with the worldwide confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union.

[READ: JFK: 50 Years Later]

But he gradually changed his mind. Kennedy had been a hero in World War II as the commander of a U.S. attack boat, PT-109, and he respected physical bravery. He saw it manifested by civil rights protesters who were beaten by segregationists and attacked by police dogs in the South. This was a big factor in turning Kennedy into an admirer of the civil rights demonstrators.

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In June 1963, Alabama Gov. George Wallace stood in the doorway to block two black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama. Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard to protect the students and make sure they were admitted to the school, and Wallace backed down. In the aftermath of his stand, Kennedy went on national television June 11 and declared that the time had come to grant African-Americans full equality with whites.

"We are confronted primarily with a moral issue," he declared. "It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution." He added: "We preach freedom around the world but are we to say to the world and to each other that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes?" He called for legislation to end segregation in education, to protect the right to vote for African-Americans, and to guarantee equal access to public facilities.

[READ: The JFK Myth, 50 Years Later]

It marked a turning point for the civil rights movement. The president of the United States was now on board.

Afterward, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the leading civil rights leader, told a friend, "Can you believe that white man not only stepped up to the plate, he hit it over the fence!"

More News:

  • Where Were You When JFK Was Assassinated?
  • JFK: What Might Have Been
  • The Untold Story of the Warren Commission
  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and on Facebook and Twitter.