John F. Kennedy, Civil Rights Leader   Leave a comment


John F Kennedy is not automatically associated with civil rights issues as Kennedy’s presidency is more famed for the Cuban Missile Crisis and issues surrounding the Cold War. Also, no obvious civil rights legislation was signed by Kennedy. However, Kennedy did have a major input into civil rights history – though posthumously.

JFK with Lyndon Johnson

John Kennedy came from a rich and privileged Irish-American family. Even so, the family had to leave Boston, the city they are most famously associated with, and moved to New York. In Boston, the family had been held at arms length by those rich families who saw their Irish background as vulgar and the family’s wealth as lacking ‘class’. The Kennedy’s hoped that the more cosmopolitan New York would allow them to access high society. This introduction to bigotry and discrimination should have given Kennedy some kind of empathetic understanding of what life was like for African Americans. However, the opposite would appear to be true.

Kennedy put political realism before any form of beliefs when he voted against Eisenhower’s 1957 Civil Rights Act. The route from bill to act nearly served to tear apart the Republicans and the Democrats were almost united to a politician in their opposition to the bill/act. Kennedy had aspirations to be the Democrats next presidential candidate in the 1960 election. If he was seen to be taking the party line and demonstrating strong leadership with regards to opposing the bill, this would do his chances no harm whatsoever. This proved to be the case and Kennedy lead the Democrats to victory over Richard Nixon in 1960.

However, during the presidential campaign and after he was nominated for the Democrats, Kennedy made it clear in his speeches that he was a supporter of civil rights. Historians are divided as to why he was ‘suddenly’ converted. Some saw the opposition to the 1957 Act as understandable from a political point of view. Others have adopted a more cynical view which is that Kennedy recognised that he needed the ‘Black Vote’ if he was to beat Nixon. Hence why he said in his campaign speeches that discrimination stained America as it lead the west’s stance against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. He also said that a decent president could end unacceptable housing conditions by using federal  power. His call of sympathy to Martin Luther King’s wife, Coretta, when King was in prison was well publicised by the Democrats.

Now as president, Kennedy could either ignore discrimination or he could act. He had promised in his campaign speeches to act swiftly if elected. The 1960 report by the Civil Rights Commission made it very plain in clear statistics just how bad discrimination had affected the African American community.

57% of African American housing was judged to be unacceptable
African American life expectancy was 7 years less than whites
African American infant mortality was twice as great as whites
African Americans found it all but impossible to get mortgages from mortgage lenders.
Property values would drop a great deal if an African American family moved into a neighbourhood that was not a ghetto.

Regardless of his promises, in 1961 Kennedy did nothing to help and push forward the civil rights issue. Why? International factors meant that the president could never focus attention on domestic issues in that year. He also knew that there was no great public support for such legislation. Opinion polls indicated that in 1960 and 1961, civil rights was at the bottom of the list when people were asked “what needs to be done in America to advance society ?” Kennedy was also concentrating his domestic attention on improving health care and helping the lowest wage earners. Civil rights issues would only cloud the issue and disrupt progress in these areas. Kennedy also argued that improving health care and wages for the poor would effectively be civil rights legislation as they would benefit the most from these two.

What did Kennedy do to advance the cause of civil rights?

he put pressure on federal government organisations to employ more African Americans in America’s equivalent of Britain’s Civil Service. Any who were employed were usually in the lowest paid posts and in jobs that had little prospect of professional progress. The FBI only employed 48 African Americans out of a total of 13,649 and these 48 were nearly all chauffeurs. Kennedy did more than any president before him to have more African Americans appointed to federal government posts. In total, he appointed 40 to senior federal positions including five as federal judges.

 

Kennedy appointed his brother (Robert) as Attorney General which put him at the head of the Justice Department. Their tactic was to use the law courts as a way of enforcing already passed civil rights legislation. No southern court could really argue against laws that were already in print – though they were very good at interpreting the law in a cavalier way !! The Justice Department brought 57 law suits against local officials for obstructing African Americans who wished to register their right to vote. Local officials from Louisiana were threatened with prison for contempt when they refused to hand over money to newly desegregated schools. Such a threat prompted others in Atlanta, Memphis and New Orleans to hand over finance without too many problems – few if any were willing to experience the American penal system which had a policy of punishment then as opposed to reforming prisoners.


Kennedy was very good at what would appear to be small gestures. In American football, the Washington Redskins were the last of the big teams to refuse to sign African Americans. Their stadium was federally funded and Kennedy ordered that they were no longer allowed to use the stadium and would have to find a new one. The team very quickly signed up African American players.
Kennedy created the CEEO (Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity). Its job was to ensure that all people employed with the federal government had equal employment opportunities; it also required all those firms that had contracts with the federal government to do the same if they were to win further federal contracts. However, the CEEO was only concerned with those already employed (though it did encourage firms to employ African Americans) and it did nothing to actively get employment opportunities for African Americans. The CEEO was concerned with those in employment within the federal government…….not the unemployed.

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Posted February 28, 2012 by pennylibertygbow in Civil Rights

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