More than 50 years ago, white supremacists tested the moral mettle of another president. No sooner had John F. Kennedy entered office than he confronted what Martin Luther King Jr. called “America’s chief moral dilemma”: the raging bigotry, hatred and segregation of the South.
For far too long, Kennedy was slow to respond, angering blacks and other Americans sympathetic to the civil rights movement. Kennedy felt politically hemmed in by powerful Southern senators eager to block his wider domestic agenda. In response, he addressed the waves of vicious attacks against African Americans as a law-and-order issue rather than a moral reckoning.
Only gradually did Kennedy listen to the pleas of King on behalf of 20 million black Americans. Over two and a half years, thanks in large part to the prodding of King, Kennedy gained an education in empathy, conscience, tolerance and moral courage. And finally, on June 11, 1963, he stopped dithering, stopped looking the other way.
On that Tuesday evening, President Kennedy sat down before television cameras in the Oval Office and spoke to the nation.
“We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” he declared. “It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.” He then explained why segregation, discrimination and white supremacy were contrary to the values underlined by the Founders and enshrined in the Constitution. “The heart of the question,” he said, “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.”
He told the country what he had learned — that no one can understand the degradation of discrimination without thinking hard about it and what it means for those being targeted.
“If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public,” the president said, “if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?”
It was a remarkable speech that Kennedy delivered in the midst of relentless violence against black Americans who were merely seeking their long-denied constitutional rights. Some weeks before, blacks marching in Birmingham, some as young as 6, were set upon by police dogs and blasted by high-powered fire hoses.
On the day of the speech, the racist governor of Alabama, George Wallace, a Democrat like Kennedy, had stood in the schoolhouse door to block the admission of two black students to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Only after Kennedy sent the federalized Alabama National Guard onto the campus did Wallace back down.
Kennedy had dragged his feet on major civil rights action for more than two years. But on the night of his speech he announced plans to introduce legislation to rid the country of the scourge of segregation, and he spoke on the issue of bigotry and racism in moral language that had never passed from the lips of any president. He initiated what became a significant era of civil rights progress.
On the night of Kennedy’s transformative speech, many Americans rejoiced, but were also reminded of the setbacks and sacrifices on the road to progress.
Several hours after the television cameras blinked off in the Oval Office, Medgar Evers, the field secretary of the NAACP in Jackson, Miss., climbed out of his 1962 light blue Oldsmobile and crossed toward his house under the bright lights of his carport.
About 200 feet away, a sniper hidden in a honeysuckle thicket took aim through a telescopic sight on his rifle. A gunshot rang out, and a bullet passed through Evers’s back just below the right shoulder blade; it smashed through the front window of the house, ricocheted off the refrigerator and hit a coffeepot.
Evers managed to stagger a few steps toward the doorway before collapsing. An hour later, at 1:14 a.m., he was dead.
Five months later, so was Kennedy.
The issues Kennedy stared down are very much with us today: Then, as now, we struggle with the need for conscience, compassion, and acceptance of our fellow Americans. Then, as now, we speak truth to power and demand that power listen and learn. Then, as now, our president guides the nation by the way he comports himself.
Kennedy’s experience stands as a model of the trials a president confronts and the obligation he possesses to grow in office. For much of his term Kennedy was distrusted by blacks, but he evolved as a politician and a man. For years after his brief term, three portraits adorned the walls of many African American homes: Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy.
Although slow to act, Kennedy at last recognized the need to go beyond just identifying hatred. He framed white supremacist behavior in moral terms and announced action to address it. If the country were genuinely to move forward, it had to face its racial ugliness head-on, call out its ungodly nature, and try to legislate change.
“We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and as a people,” he told the nation that night in 1963. “It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is time to act in the Congress, in your state and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives.”
Changing people’s behavior, however, is a tricky business. As the president acknowledged that night: “Law alone cannot make men see right.”
But if the law can’t change a man’s soul, it at least can help rein in his evil intentions. “Now, people will say, ‘You can’t legislate morals.’ Well, that may be true,” Martin Luther King Jr. once said. “It may be true that the laws can’t make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important, also.”
King knew that laws alone weren’t enough. “Both legislation and education are required,” he explained. “We need religion and education to change attitudes and to change the hearts of men.”
Fifty years on, we’re still working at it.
Steven Levingston is nonfiction editor of The Washington Post and author of “Kennedy and King: The President, the Pastor, and the Battle over Civil Rights.”
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