The Story Behind JFK’s 1963 Landmark Civil Rights Speech

The historic speech that almost had to be given off the cuff.

By + More
WideModern_kennedy2_061113.jpg
President John F. Kennedy makes a national television speech October 22, 1962, from Washington. He announced a naval blockade of Cuba until Soviet missiles are removed.

The Center for the Study of Race and Democracy's Peniel Joseph has a great New York Times op-ed today positioning President John F. Kennedy's speech on civil rights – which he delivered 50 years ago today – in the broader context of that movement. The whole thing is worth a read, but one bit leapt out at me as understating the story:

Kennedy had dabbled with the idea of going on TV should the Alabama crisis drag out, so when it ended, his staff assumed the plan was off. But that afternoon he surprised them by calling the three networks and personally requesting airtime at 8 p.m. He told his speechwriter Theodore Sorensen to start drafting the text, but shortly before he went on air the president was still editing it.

There's more to the back-story of the speech, which is itself a pretty good tale (though in fairness to Peniel, not one which would have fit into his op-ed).

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

As I recount in " White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters," JFK had actively debated with his senior staff over whether to give a televised address even before Alabama Gov. George Wallace left the schoolhouse door in Tuscaloosa. "We've got a draft which doesn't fit all these points but it's something to work with, and there's some pretty good sentences and paragraphs," Kennedy said during one such meeting on June 10, 1963. (There was, in fact, no draft.)

With the exception of the president's brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, they all opposed his giving a national speech. The likelihood of a civil rights bill actually passing congress was so slim that it wasn't worth the president putting political capital into the effort. It was a familiar argument for Kennedy, who had caught a great deal of grief from supporters and civil rights activists for largely remaining silent on the issue while in office because he felt there was little he could accomplish regarding it. "It is clear that his measure is concrete achievement and people who educate the nation without necessarily achieving their goals, like [Woodrow] Wilson and [Teddy Roosevelt], rate below those, like [Harry] Truman and [James] Polk, who do things without bringing the nation along with them," Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (my father) wrote in his diary at the time. On another occasion JFK told him that "the nation will only listen if it is a moment of great urgency."

On June 11, when Wallace relented, Kennedy's staff did assume that there would be no speech. But having watched the crisis unfold and resolve on television along with the rest of the country JFK understood that the kind of "moment of great urgency" which could rivet a nation – and give a president a real opportunity to persuade and lead – was at hand. "We better give that civil rights speech tonight," he said, turning to his top aide and speechwriter, Ted Sorensen.

[ Robert Schlesinger: When U.S. News Editorialized Against JFK’s Civil Rights Speech.]

But there was no speech and Kennedy's decision gave Sorensen six hours to produce one before the president was to go on the air at 8 p.m. Sorensen huddled in the Cabinet Room drafting with the help of Robert Kennedy and Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall. Kennedy found the group there at 7 p.m., still working. "C'mon Burke, you must have some ideas," JFK quipped.

With 20 minutes before the television cameras would carry him live to the nation and concerned that Sorensen might for the first time miss a deadline ("For the first time, I thought was going to have to go off the cuff," Kennedy later told Sorensen), the president and his brother retreated to the Oval Office to outline an extemporaneous speech. JFK took notes on the back of an envelope and other scrap paper.

Sorensen arrived with the finished draft less than five minutes before airtime, barely giving the president time to read it over. This isn't to suggest that the speechwriter has ownership or responsibility for the historic words: He was working from both years of experience with Kennedy – a deep knowledge of his sentiments on the issue – as well as the president's own thoughts from earlier in the day.

Nevertheless, at the last minute, Robert Kennedy made the bold suggestion that the president should scrap some or all of Sorensen's version. "The speech was good," the attorney general later said. "I think that probably, if he had given it [entirely] extemporaneously, it would have been as good or better."

[ See a slide show of the 10 youngest presidents.]

For the most part Kennedy did use Sorensen's version. "We are confronted primarily with a moral issue," he told the nation 50 years ago tonight. "It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated."

But Kennedy did conclude with some of the ideas he had sketched out with his brother in case Sorensen had failed to deliver. "This is one country," he said. "It has become one country because all of us and all the people who came here had an equal chance to develop their talents. We cannot say to 10 percent of the population that you can't have the right; that your children can't have the chance to develop whatever talents they have."

When my father later praised the speech to the president, JFK was quick to note that an economic redevelopment bill had surprisingly failed in the House the next day. "But of course I had to give the speech, and I am glad that I did," he added.

So are we all.