A look back at the Kennedy civil rights legacy

| December 1, 2013


Brenda Robinson

Brenda Robinson

Most of us are thankful. Most of us grew up believing Thanksgiving was a time to show gratitude for whatever we had. As time passed, we became somewhat more aware of the historical inaccuracy of Thanksgiving (for example, discovering America’s theft from Native Americans), but the tradition remained. This celebration is now a part of the fiber of America and this country has at least attempted to make amends to Native Americans. Thus, the tradition remains. Since we can’t undo our fraudulent beginning, this Thanksgiving, let’s give thanks for bold politicians who worked to ensure every American’s civil rights are guaranteed, although said rights were not engrained in America’s discovery

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the late President John F. Kennedy. The pundits are evaluating the late president’s legacy and asking the question, “What would America be like if Kennedy had served as president for eight years?” Some critics proclaimed the late Kennedy did not set a bold, liberal agenda and was given credit for civil rights movements in error. There is some truth to these proclamations. History reveals Kennedy came into office with minimal enthusiasm for civil rights.

For example, Kennedy voted against his predecessor’s, the late President Dwight Eisenhower, 1957 civil rights legislation. He condemned the Freedom Riders, those activist who protested the KKK. Kennedy did nothing for voter registration his first year in office. He spoke negatively of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) movement. And, there was no civil rights legislation passed under his administration.

Yet, other critics proclaim Kennedy was a champion for civil rights and asserted his untimely death prevented further activity. His stand for justice threatened his chances for re-election. He was killed in Dallas and was in that city attempting to win the southern white vote. Due to his stand on freedom for blacks, votes for him in the South were in jeopardy. Kennedy, although acutely aware of the political repercussions, boldly took on the challenged laws that condoned racism and prejudice. Some stated that “change of heart” was due to Kennedy’s need for the black vote for his upcoming re-election, since he would certainly lose the southern white vote. Whatever his motivation, the tone was set for eliminating prejudices against blacks.

While there are 21st century politicians who have done much more for civil rights than the late president, we must compare the times. In the 1960s, even minimal political movements for African American rights were unprecedented. Although Kennedy voted against the 1957 civil rights act, his campaign speeches leading up to the 1960 election were pro-civil rights. Reportedly, Kennedy said discrimination stained America and that a decent president could end unacceptable housing laws. According to historical records, he put pressure on the federal government to hire more blacks, appointed five black federal judges, and 57 lawsuits were brought against local officials for preventing blacks from registering to vote.

There is something refreshing about boldness, whether considered acceptable or unacceptable. Think about it: When an individual goes against the status quo, we secretly or openly admire their tenacity. We recognize an individual who rejects wrong, regardless of the outcome. Kennedy’s position had a positive impact on America, indicated by the responses to his death, 50 years later. Citizens, locally and nationally, recalled where they were and what they were doing, when the President was killed. Politicians became committed to passing civil rights legislation, following Kennedy’s death, an indication of following the tone set by the late president.

Kennedy lost support in the South, due to his stance for civil rights. When he was elected in 1960, his southern approval rating was 60 percent. That approval was at 40 percent in September 1963. White Democrats, traditionally members of the Democratic Party, were switching to the Republican Party, due to Kennedy’s civil rights position. Politically, Kennedy’s 1964 re-election was compromised.

When we are giving thanks this Thanksgiving season, let us express gratitude for the late President John F. Kennedy for his recognition of discrimination and his boldness to make life better for African Americans. He did not pass any civil rights legislation, but he has a place in history for doing the right thing.

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Category: National, Opinion

About the Author ()

Brenda Robinson is an NNPA Emory O. Jackson award-winning columnist for Frost Illustrated.

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