The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Activism spurred political leadership on civil rights once. Will it happen again?

In 1963, the Kennedy administration became a crucial ally for the civil rights movement

Voting rights activists gathered in Washington on Aug. 28 to mark the 58th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and to urge the Senate to pass voting rights legislation. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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America is in the midst of a racial reckoning comparable to the 1960s. New efforts to overcome voting restrictions percolate in Congress, as does a push to end police brutality. The summer of 1963, and the famed March on Washington, marked a turning point in the racial crisis of that era — a moment when sustained activism and long-term organizing efforts finally compelled a governmental response to the demands of the civil rights movement. The question in 2021 is whether activism and protests can again summon the political leadership essential in helping to move the United States toward a racially just and inclusive democracy.

For the first two years of the Kennedy administration, the president was reluctant to publicly emphasize civil rights for political reasons. Even so, in the face of national indifference and a Congress dominated by Southern Democrats, President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy, the attorney general, worked through the Justice Department to enforce school desegregation rulings and voting rights laws, though they gained little headway.

Everything changed in 1963. By the time Aug. 28 rolled around, racial tensions had reached a boiling point across the country. Months earlier, when the police assaulted young demonstrators with dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham, Ala., nationwide protests ignited over long-festering racial conditions, not only in the South but in urban areas across the country. Meanwhile, Alabama Gov. George Wallace had become the standard-bearer of White defiance and backlash. During this period, the Kennedy administration emerged as a critical ally of the civil rights movement.

During the spring and summer of 1963, President Kennedy initiated a multi-front effort to pass a strong civil rights bill. Most of his advisers and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson opposed this push. They warned that a strong bill had no chance of defeating a Southern filibuster in the Senate and, with the 1964 presidential election looming, predicted dire political consequences. But the Kennedys were committed to facing a racial crisis Robert Kennedy described as “100 years in the making.”

With his June 11 civil rights address to the nation, the president put the federal government squarely on the side of racial equality and justice. Racial discrimination was not “a sectional issue,” Kennedy said, but a condition that existed “in every city, every State of the Union.” The president praised Americans who had been working, and even risking their lives, to end discrimination and division. “Like our soldiers and sailors in all parts of the world, they are meeting freedom’s challenge on the firing line, and I salute them for their honor and their courage.”

During a summer of escalating racial conflict, the Kennedy brothers worried that a massive demonstration in Washington might jeopardize their chances of passing a civil rights bill. If violence broke out, the media would be ready to snap up images, providing grist for segregationists and frightening off potential Republican support needed to pass the bill. Civil rights leaders saw it differently. Demonstrations would continue that summer, they told the president; there was no stopping them. Martin Luther King Jr. explained that a nonviolent mass march, organized by civil rights leaders, would help defuse racial tensions and mobilize public support for the president’s civil rights bill. The march, they insisted, would go forward.

And so, the Kennedys did all in their power to help assure its success. Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department led in coordinating the efforts of federal agencies and the D.C. government, working closely with Bayard Rustin and other leaders of the march. Justice Department lawyer John Douglas oversaw elaborate plans for traffic flow, transportation and parking, in addition to arrangements for toilets, trash cans and stations to dispense water and provide food. He also persuaded the United Auto Workers union to provide a first-rate sound system. To supplement local law enforcement, U.S. Chief Marshal James McShane, a former New York City policeman, helped to recruit Black police officers from New York who volunteered their time to serve as specially trained marshals in civilian clothes. The goal, Douglas said, was to help foster a feeling of safety and organization.

It was a day like no other. The estimated quarter-million people who filled the mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial represented all segments of society — battle-weary movement veterans, clergy, labor groups, sharecroppers, housewives, students, government workers, film and theater stars. An estimated 25 percent of participants were White.

The city was enveloped in song, marching feet and a sea of placards: “March for freedom,” “End segregation,” “We demand decent housing,” “We march for jobs,” “We demand an end to police brutality now.” The chant “Pass the bill” echoed across the crowd. One observer described the march as “part camp meeting, part joyful picnic, and part a determined almost fierce political rally uniting people of so many kinds and conditions.” James Baldwin, savoring the moment, commented to a reporter: “The day was important itself. What we do with this day is more important.”

Journalists reported that despite its power and urgency, the march “left much of Congress untouched — physically, emotionally and politically.” Whether votes were won for the bill, one reporter noted, would depend on the overall effect of the march on television audiences. Congress members key to the fate of the bill were most concerned about the responses of Whites in northern and western suburbs who, according to polls, “tended to feel that the civil rights revolution was moving too fast.”

For Black Americans from rural towns and cities in all corners of the nation, the gathering brought the powerful realization that they were not alone.

That fall, President Kennedy’s civil rights bill faced several major hurdles in the House Judiciary Committee, challenges Kennedy, his brother and their team skillfully navigated. On Nov. 20, the president’s bill passed the House Judiciary Committee, setting it on course for House passage.

By the time Kennedy left for his fateful trip to Dallas, the basic legislation that would ultimately become the Civil Rights Act was in place along with the strategy for securing its passage. In 1964, Robert Kennedy and his team in the Justice Department, with the full support of now-President Johnson, took the lead and continued to work with the bipartisan group John F. Kennedy had created to steer the bill through the Senate. They worked closely with Sens. Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.), Thomas Kuchel (R-Calif.) and Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.), ultimately defeating a 75-day long filibuster without significantly watering the bill down.

On June 19, 1964, exactly a year after Kennedy had introduced the bill, the Senate voted to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was signed into law by Johnson on July 2.

The Civil Rights Act ended legally mandated segregation in the South and revived the federal protection of citizenship rights intended by the Fourteenth Amendment, which had been denied for nearly a century. A year later, following a major protest in Selma, Ala., Johnson seized the moment to introduce voting rights legislation. Signed in August 1965, the Voting Rights Act marked the capstone of the civil rights era.

And yet, Robert Kennedy understood the limits of legislation: “Anybody who thinks passage of legislation will make this problem go away is out of his mind,” he said. As a senator, Kennedy kept attention focused on the consequences of America’s long history of racial discrimination. Indeed, the urban uprisings of the late 1960s exposed systemic problems of police brutality and entrenched poverty, while the politics of White backlash began gaining traction.

Today, the festering reality of abusive policing demands national attention as a major civil rights issue, along with the fight to hold on to the ground that was gained with the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In this moment of racial reckoning, the struggles of the 1960s remind us how sustained activism and organizing can raise national awareness and create both the demand and opportunity for bold leadership at the highest levels of government.