By Erik Love, assistant professor of sociology
President John F. Kennedy made several significant contributions to the ongoing struggle for civil rights, but his legacy in this area includes some often overlooked controversies. Kennedy came to the presidency at a time when change was underway. Brown v. Board, which outlawed "separate but equal" segregation, had been decided more than six years before Kennedy took office. The NAACP and Dr. Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference had been working assiduously. Hundreds of thousands of civil-rights campaigners risked their lives, standing with guns pointed at their heads, to demand change. In some ways, JFK stood in their way.
In 1961, when the Freedom Riders withstood brutal beatings to protest against segregation, JFK remained silent. In 1963, he told MLK that it was not a good time to pursue federal civil-rights legislation, saying that "a long fight over this in Congress … will bottleneck everything else, and we will still get no bill." Kennedy refused to speak at the March on Washington, in part because he worried that the protest would undercut his support in the South. These failures might lead some historians to conclude that the best thing that JFK did for civil rights was to put Lyndon Johnson on the ticket. But that would be unfair.
Despite its miscues, the Kennedy administration made some bold and significant moves to support civil rights. His 1961 executive order coined the term "affirmative action" and required federal contractors to actively prevent employment discrimination. Kennedy sent federal troops into Mississippi to support James Meredith as he enrolled at Ole Miss, and he spoke eloquently about civil rights in his first State of the Union address, saying that "the denial of constitutional rights to some of our fellow Americans on account of race … is not equal to the high promise of our heritage."
Read more faculty perspectives on JFK.
Published November 20, 2013