more at Huffington Post
Dr. King’s rhetoric was forged in fire and brimstone on the altar of confrontation. King was destined to pave the way, not just for Barack Obama, but for another Democratic president back in his day, which is why I run this piece I wrote years ago every year on this day. It took the collision of two great men to dismantle the prejudice of America’s political history, even if civil rights remains a scarred wound that doesn’t take much to rip open.
Dr. King was forever challenging the U.S. media, but there weren’t many in the establishment that didn’t feel Dr. King’s heat. It’s certain that President John F. Kennedy did. But King lived in times of volatility, cataclysmic change and violent national shifts. He was a powerfully effective man of peace in a time of country and cultural wars.
Some believe that President Kennedy’s presidency was owed, at least in part, to Dr. Martin Luther King. In a moment of stunning political pressure inside his own camp, candidate Kennedy reached out to Martin Luther King when he was convicted of a probation violation after participating in a diner sit-in in Atlanta, Georgia. Forever the political pragmatist, Kennedy saw the light, with a big push from Bobby, and interceded on behalf of King to get him released from Reidsville Prison. That, as some tell it, changed history. King as an ally brought out the black vote, helping to defeat Nixon. But there were many other fault lines in 1960, including Texas, Illinois, but especially West Virginia, that played their part, too. So I’ll let you be the judge of whether King helped elect Kennedy. He sure didn’t hurt him. Neither did Kennedy’s pledge to right the wrongs being done to blacks.
However, once president, Kennedy was simply too obsessed with foreign policy issues to turn his attention to the home front. He just didn’t get the importance of King’s fights down south, at first, especially when juxtaposed against the crisis brewing overseas. The challenges escalating between East and West Germany kept JFK’s attention focused on nuclear confrontation, then came the Cuban Missile crisis. But eventually, JFK began to finally understand that the home front matters as much as what’s happening “over there,” especially in the face of horrible prejudice. Kennedy was a man who could change and he did.
Known as the Birmingham Campaign, King altered history and shifted Kennedy’s thinking along with it. His famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is now legend. It was King’s incarceration in Birmingham that led Coretta Scott King to call President Kennedy, which resulted in him interceding once again on King’s behalf, forcing the Birmingham bigots to allow King to talk to his wife.
The March on Washington and King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” worried President Kennedy at the time. He was understandably concerned about violence breaking out, but eventually King won him over.
Watching the brutality in Birmingham and the subsequent political push from King and other civil rights leaders changed Kennedy forever. Months before King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, on June 11, 1963, JFK proposed action that would offer “the kind of equality of treatment which we would want for ourselves.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. had gotten through to Kennedy, revealing something from which J.F.K. had once been distanced, a world away.
John F. Kennedy’s address that June:
Good evening, my fellow citizens:
This afternoon, following a series of threats and defiant statements, the presence of Alabama National Guardsmen was required on the University of Alabama to carry out the final and unequivocal order of the United States District Court of the Northern District of Alabama. That order called for the admission of two clearly qualified young Alabama residents who happened to have been born Negro.
That they were admitted peacefully on the campus is due in good measure to the conduct of the students of the University of Alabama, who met their responsibilities in a constructive way.
I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents. This Nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was rounded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.
Today we are committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free. And when Americans are sent to Viet-Nam or West Berlin, we do not ask for whites only. It ought to be possible, therefore, for American students of any color to attend any public institution they select without having to be backed up by troops.
It ought to be possible for American consumers of any color to receive equal service in places of public accommodation, such as hotels and restaurants and theaters and retail stores, without being forced to resort to demonstrations in the street, and it ought to be possible for American citizens of any color to register and to vote in a free election without interference or fear of reprisal.
It ought to be possible, in short, for every American to enjoy the privileges of being American without regard to his race or his color. In short, every American ought to have the right to be treated as he would wish to be treated, as one would wish his children to be treated. But this is not the case.
The Negro baby born in America today, regardless of the section of the Nation in which he is born, has about one-half as much chance of completing a high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day, one-third as much chance of completing college, one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man, twice as much chance of becoming unemployed, about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year, a life expectancy which is 7 years shorter, and the prospects of earning only half as much.
This is not a sectional issue. Difficulties over segregation and discrimination exist in every city, in every State of the Union, producing in many cities a rising tide of discontent that threatens the public safety. Nor is this a partisan issue. In a time of domestic crisis men of good will and generosity should be able to unite regardless of party or politics. This is not even a legal or legislative issue alone. It is better to settle these matters in the courts than on the streets, and new laws are needed at every level, but law alone cannot make men see right.
We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.
The heart of the question 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. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who 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? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?
One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.
We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is a land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or cast system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes?
Now the time has come for this Nation to fulfill its promise. The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or State or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them.
The fires of frustration and discord are burning in every city, North and South, where legal remedies are not at hand. Redress is sought in the streets, in demonstrations, parades, and protests which create tensions and threaten violence and threaten lives.
We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and as a people. 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 a time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives.
It is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say this is a problem of one section of the country or another, or deplore the fact that we face. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all.
Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right as well as reality.
Next week I shall ask the Congress of the United States to act, to make a commitment it has not fully made in this century to the proposition that race has no place in American life or law. The Federal judiciary has upheld that proposition in a series of forthright cases. The executive branch has adopted that proposition in the conduct of its affairs, including the employment of Federal personnel, the use of Federal facilities, and the sale of federally financed housing.
But there are other necessary measures which only the Congress can provide, and they must be provided at this session. The old code of equity law under which we live commands for every wrong a remedy, but in too many communities, in too many parts of the country, wrongs are inflicted on Negro citizens and there are no remedies at law. Unless the Congress acts, their only remedy is in the street.
I am, therefore, asking the Congress to enact legislation giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public–hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments.
This seems to me to be an elementary right. Its denial is an arbitrary indignity that no American in 1963 should have to endure, but many do.
I have recently met with scores of business leaders urging them to take voluntary action to end this discrimination and I have been encouraged by their response, and in the last 2 weeks over 75 cities have seen progress made in desegregating these kinds of facilities. But many are unwilling to act alone, and for this reason, nationwide legislation is needed if we are to move this problem from the streets to the courts.
I am also asking Congress to authorize the Federal Government to participate more fully in lawsuits designed to end segregation in public education. We have succeeded in persuading many districts to de-segregate voluntarily. Dozens have admitted Negroes without violence. Today a Negro is attending a State-supported institution in every one of our 50 States, but the pace is very slow.
Too many Negro children entering segregated grade schools at the time of the Supreme Court’s decision 9 years ago will enter segregated high schools this fall, having suffered a loss which can never be restored. The lack of an adequate education denies the Negro a chance to get a decent job.
The orderly implementation of the Supreme Court decision, therefore, cannot be left solely to those who may not have the economic resources to carry the legal action or who may be subject to harassment.
Other features will be also requested, including greater protection for the right to vote. But legislation, I repeat, cannot solve this problem alone. It must be solved in the homes of every American in every community across our country.
In this respect, I want to pay tribute to those citizens North and South who have been working in their communities to make life better for all. They are acting not out of a sense of legal duty but out of a sense of human decency.
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.
My fellow Americans, this is a problem which faces us all–in every city of the North as well as the South. Today there are Negroes unemployed, two or three times as many compared to whites, inadequate in education, moving into the large cities, unable to find work, young people particularly out of work without hope, denied equal rights, denied the opportunity to eat at a restaurant or lunch counter or go to a movie theater, denied the right to a decent education, denied almost today the right to attend a State university even though qualified. It seems to me that these are matters which concern us all, not merely Presidents or Congressmen or Governors, but every citizen of the United States.
This is one country. It has become one country because all of us and all the people who came here had an equal chance to develop their talents.
We cannot say to 10 percent of the population that you can’t have that right; that your children can’t have the chance to develop whatever talents they have; that the only way that they are going to get their rights is to go into the streets and demonstrate. I think we owe them and we owe ourselves a better country than that.
Therefore, I am asking for your help in making it easier for us to move ahead and to provide the kind of equality of treatment which we would want ourselves; to give a chance for every child to be educated to the limit of his talents.
As I have said before, not every child has an equal talent or an equal ability or an equal motivation, but they should have the equal right to develop their talent and their ability and their motivation, to make something of themselves.
We have a right to expect that the Negro community will be responsible, will uphold the law, but they have a right to expect that the law will be fair, that the Constitution will be color blind, as Justice Harlan said at the turn of the century.
This is what we are talking about and this is a matter which concerns this country and what it stands for, and in meeting it I ask the support of all our citizens.
Thank you very much.
It took constant campaigning from King, but JFK came to understand that action was required. Kennedy became the first president since Truman to trumpet the cause of civil rights. President John F. Kennedy’s civil rights legislation was met with fierce opposition by the southern delegations of Congress. He was assassinated before it became law.
The legislation LBJ finally signed was Kennedy’s hope for a new America. Had John F. Kennedy lived, his civil rights actions would have been met hard in the south during his 1964 campaign. JFK never lived to fight this fight. The legislation LBJ signed was Kennedy’s final vision, and the words LBJ spoke upon the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 encapsulized the moment for history: “We’ve lost the south for a generation.”
King’s eulogy upon JFK’s death proved the respect each man had won from the other and that politicians can change to forge great hopes for those oppressed. He said that John F. Kennedy lived his life to “move forward with more determination to rid our nation of the vestiges of racial segregation and discrimination.”
King made the men of the 1960s come his way, see the overwhelming injustices. Like many great men, history has given evidence that he was wholly human and flawed. His life force was gargantuan. His courage unbounded. His faith guided his life, because he knew his soul would live on and on. His memory has as well.
It’s not many a man who could change the course of John F. Kennedy’s life and his philosophy. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had the power to do just that and it changed America forever.
TM NOTE: HBO will be airing a tribute to John F. Kennedy on January 20, 2011 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his inauguration.
Edited from post first published 1.15.07.