I noted in the Daylight Video that the desegregation of the University of Alabama finally occurred on this day a half-century ago, when George Wallace got his political pound of flesh for “standing in the schoolhouse door” and relented to federal military pressure. But that evening, having won this important battle, John F. Kennedy surprised his own staff by requesting network television time, and made the speech that forever identified the 35th president of the with the civil rights movement.
As Tufts University’s Peniel Joseph notes in today’s New York Times, JFK’s speech was a turning point for Kennedy himself, and a key landmark on the road to the enactment, after his death, of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965:
Kennedy began slowly and in a matter-of-fact manner, with an announcement that the National Guard had peacefully enrolled two black students at the University of Alabama over Wallace’s vociferously racist objections.
But he quickly spun that news into a plea for national unity behind what he, for the first time, called a “moral issue.” It seems obvious today that civil rights should be spoken of in universal terms, but at the time many white Americans still saw it as a regional, largely political question. And yet here was the leader of the country, asking “every American, regardless of where he lives,” to “stop and examine his conscience.”
Then he went further. Speaking during the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation — an anniversary he had assiduously avoided commemorating, earlier that year — Kennedy eloquently linked the fate of African-American citizenship to the larger question of national identity and freedom. America, “for all its hopes and all its boasts,” observed Kennedy, “will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.”
Perhaps the most significant part of the speech came near the end, when Kennedy, borrowing directly from the movement’s rhetoric, recognized the civil rights struggle as part of a political and cultural revolution sweeping the land — again, an obvious point to anyone on the other side of the 1960s, but not to a white population still living in the stifling bliss of the Eisenhower era.
Within hours after Kennedy’s address ended, civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered by a Citizens’ Council and Ku Klux Klan member in front of his home in Jackson, Mississippi, an event that may have overshadowed the presidential speech initially, but also helped shape the climate of public opinion that made civil rights a truly national issue.
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