JFK SPOKE TO THE NATION ON CIVIL RIGHTS 50 YEARS AGO TONIGHT
Washington, D.C. (JFK+50) Fifty years ago tonight, June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy spoke to the nation from the Oval Office at the White House on the issue of civil rights.
The speech, the first ever given by an American president exclusively on the civil rights issue, followed the failed attempt by Governor George C. Wallace to stop two African-American students from being admitted to the University of Alabama.
JFK called civil rights...
"a moral issue....as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution."
President Kennedy said:
"If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his child to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him, who would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place."
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., leader of the civil rights movement, called it "the most sweeping and forthright speech ever presented by an American president."
JFK Speaks on Civil Rights
June 11, 1963
Photo by Abbie Rowe
In an editorial in today's New York Times, Peniel Joseph* says that June 11, 1963 "might have been the single most important day in civil rights history."
Mr. Joseph reminds us that not only did JFK speak to the nation on civil rights and not only did Governor Wallace try to stop integration in Tuscaloosa, but also the first confrontation over de facto public school segregation took place in Boston, Massachusetts and civil rights leader Medgar Evers was murdered at his home in Jackson, Mississippi just after midnight.
Joseph says that JFK's staff had expected such a speech from JFK if the Alabama crisis "dragged on," but they were shocked when he made it clear he wanted to give the speech even though the crisis had been resolved.
Peniel Joseph believes the most important part of the speech comes near the end when President Kennedy said the civil rights struggle was "part of a political and cultural revolution" and that Americans were obligated to "make that revolution...peaceful and constructive for all."
*Peniel E. Joseph is professor of history at Tufts University and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. Also an author and activist, he founded "Black Power Studies." Mr. Joseph has been a frequent commentator on CSPAN, NPR, and PBS. He lives in Somerville, MA.
"Jack Kennedy, Elusive Hero," by Chris Matthews, Simon and Schuster.
"Kennedy's Finest Moment," by Peniel E. Joseph, The New York Times, June 10, 2011, www.nytimes.com