Editor’s note: Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan chair in ethics and political values and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is a professor of history. He is the author of “The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century.” The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
John F. Kennedy’s abbreviated presidency, while often overshadowed by his successor’s on this front, was a crucial component of America’s second Reconstruction.
As the world acknowledges the somber occasion, 60 years ago this week, of Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963, it’s important to reflect on Kennedy’s pivotal role in the civil rights revolution. Kennedy’s death stunned the world and shook our nation’s foundation — but his life, punctuated by three days in June 1963, was instrumental to a transformation of American democracy.
Kennedy’s death was the end of one era and the beginning of another. Although we popularly remember his presidency and its end as closing the door on a purported age of American innocence, this is untrue.
Kennedy entered office as a young president with the firm belief that his most consequential role would be as a commander in chief, waging a global war for freedom and democracy on the world stage against the Soviet Union. Instead, Kennedy presided over the early years of the nation’s most crucial period of Reconstruction since the end of the Civil War. This new reality jarred Kennedy’s moral sensibilities, tested his political nerve and emboldened his personal will. He became a more passionate speaker, interested reader and public champion of freedom at home and abroad based on the changing domestic and global landscape. Kennedy never stood still or remained static in his conception of America.
Kennedy’s tragic death came near the end of the most tumultuous year of his presidency. The youngest man ever elected president in 1960 at the age of 43, Kennedy had a vision of a “New Frontier” that would see the nation conquer space, defeat the tyranny of Soviet Union communism and export America’s dreams of freedom to Africa and the developing world, but it was complicated by the most significant domestic crisis in our history: the Civil Rights Movement.
During Kennedy’s first two years in office, civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. criticized the young president and his younger brother and closest political adviser, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, for shortcomings in the pursuit of racial justice. The Kennedy administration’s allyship in the struggle had been cautious: at its best, exemplified by efforts in ending the mob violence against interracial Freedom Riders in 1961 and deploying federal marshals to help integrate the University of Mississippi in 1962.
The year that changed everything
When the racial crisis in Birmingham, Alabama, in the spring of 1963 galvanized America’s second Reconstruction, it prompted a decisive personal and political moment for Kennedy. The movement’s efforts to racially integrate the declining industrial steel city in Alabama met racist opposition from its commissioner of public safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, a former sports radio announcer turned full-time segregationist terror. The state of Alabama was so hostile to civil rights that it had outlawed the NAACP.
King and local leader the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth organized a series of demonstrations in April and May that landed them and fellow activist Ralph Abernathy in jail. There, King wrote his famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” which would not be published until after the crisis ended.
Meanwhile, the “Children’s Crusade,” launched by civil rights worker Jim Bevel, drew thousands of children as young as 7 to serve as shock troops of a peaceful movement to eradicate White supremacy in Birmingham. Connor’s police incarcerated thousands, unleashed dogs on nonviolent protesters and used water hoses from the fire department that were powerful enough to strip the bark from trees.
On Mother’s Day 1963, racial terrorists in Birmingham exploded bombs at the hotel of the city’s most successful Black business leader and movement supporter, AG Gaston, in an attempt to assassinate King. The blasts ignited a full-blown Black uprising that took hundreds of Alabama state troopers to quell and forced Kennedy to place the National Guard on alert. The violence also threatened to destroy a public truce between civil rights leaders and city officials that resulted in the formation of a biracial commission, the planned integration of public accommodations and the hiring of Black workers in department stores.
Kennedy faced another crisis when Alabama Gov. George Wallace, in defiance of a federal court order, vowed to prevent two Black students from entering the University of Alabama. Wallace’s infamous stand at the schoolhouse door made him a national hero to racial segregationists, far-right conservatives and believers in the Lost Cause. It propelled him to run for president in Democratic primaries the following year. It fueled an astonishingly successful campaign in 1968 that helped pave the way for more contemporary demagogues in the manipulation of White anger and resentment.
Kennedy’s pivotal words
Having tracked these violent developments from the White House, Kennedy responded to the spring crisis with a momentous set of statements and actions. Over three days in June, Kennedy embraced a vision of Black citizenship and dignity as the beating heart of American democracy.
He first did so in Hawaii on June 9 at a conference of mayors. Kennedy outlined that, for all the attention paid to the South, Northern race relations stood at a critical inflection point. Black Americans suffered double the unemployment rates as Whites, and the millions who migrated North and west to escape racial oppression found themselves living in racially segregated and economically depressed neighborhoods with poor schools, practically no social services and unaffordable, substandard housing. Kennedy challenged America’s mayors in Honolulu to offer summer jobs for Black youth and rid their local cities of racial injustice and ordinances that prevented access to equal opportunity.
The next day, Kennedy delivered the commencement address at American University. In a speech whose primary topic was world peace and finding common ground with Soviet adversaries, it’s impossible not to read into Kennedy’s words a deeper understanding of his growing consciousness about matters of race, especially lines such as his call: “Let us not be blind to our differences — but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved.”
June 11 was Kennedy’s finest hour. That evening, after Vivian Malone and James Hood successfully enrolled at the University of Alabama, Kennedy delivered an 8 p.m. televised address to the American people.
For nearly 17 minutes, Kennedy discussed the Civil Rights Movement the way King had urged him to do over the past two years. “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” Kennedy told the nation. He juxtaposed, throughout his address, the divergent life chances between Blacks and Whites from birth to death, pointing out that both groups served in the military, irrespective of race. Kennedy characterized the hundreds of demonstrations around the country supporting civil rights as “a revolution,” which could be violent or peaceful, depending on the country’s leadership. Kennedy vowed to bring comprehensive civil rights legislation to Congress within the week.
It was a bravura speech, the best of his presidency, certainly the most politically and morally significant. It left a legacy of a president who, despite being pushed in various directions by activists, his brother Bobby and the crisis of Birmingham, seized the time and stood on the right side of history.
An unfinished legacy
Early the following day, Medgar Wiley Evers, a charismatic 37-year-old military veteran and married father of three who served as the NAACP field secretary in Mississippi, was assassinated by a White supremacist. Evers’ murder triggered national waves of protests, mourning and outrage. Kennedy greeted Medgar’s wife, Myrlie, brother Charles, son Darrell Kenyatta and daughter Reena Denise at the White House after the funeral service at Arlington Cemetery.
Over the next five months, Kennedy would, at times reluctantly, fully embrace the struggle for civil rights as part of his legacy. Kennedy met with civil rights leaders after the August 28 March on Washington, hosting them with tea, coffee and sandwiches. “I have a dream,” he said to King as he shook his hand, offering congratulations for a timeless speech against the backdrop of the Lincoln Memorial.
Progress for Kennedy would always mean something other than perfection. After the September 15, 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Kennedy, to the disappointment of King and many others, refused to attend the funeral services for any of the six children killed that day. Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair all perished in the dynamite blast that ripped through the basement of the church. Three of the girls were 14, and one 11. Two other young people died in Birmingham that day. Two White Eagle Scouts murdered “Peanut” Ware as he rode on the handlebars of his brother’s bike, and police fired a shotgun in the back of Johnny Robinson in Birmingham during the unrest that came after the bombing.
Bullets put a brutal end to Kennedy’s evolution on matters of racial justice. He was shot to death in Dallas while riding in a convertible next to first lady Jacqueline Kennedy in an act of violence that also wounded then-Texas Gov. John Connally. The shock of Kennedy’s murder brought the world up short, sparking endless conspiracy theories — especially after the accused killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, was then shot and killed by Jack Ruby, himself a figure with underworld connections. While a presidential commission later identified Oswald as a lone shooter, questions remain, even six decades later.
His killing also placed him in a pantheon with the year’s other less celebrated victims— Medgar Evers and the Birmingham Six. Malcolm X, the revolutionary leader who embodied the Black resistance and parried with King over the meaning of democracy, infamously characterized Kennedy’s death as “chickens coming home to roost,” which resulted in his suspension and eventual departure from the Nation of Islam.
Though less well-known, writer James Baldwin’s response to the assassination is particularly instructive. Baldwin found himself too angry to mourn only Kennedy. He lashed out against the country that, in his estimation, did not sufficiently express grief for Medgar Evers or the lost children of Birmingham. “Evers was put to death by the southern oligarchy to preserve the southern power structure,” Baldwin said. “That’s why he died and that’s why nobody cares.” He continued. “That’s why six children died in Birmingham and nobody cares.”
The best compliment that can be paid to Kennedy’s unfinished legacy is that he evolved. That political evolution helped lay the groundwork for his successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and the magnificent achievements of the Great Society, including landmark civil rights legislation Kennedy proposed that was passed under Johnson. The ultimate lesson we can learn from Kennedy, 60 years after his death, is that this nation remains a work in progress. Kennedy’s vision, at its best, continues today in the pursuit of progress, the restless and relentless effort to achieve freedom and citizenship for all Americans so that the power of our example can reverberate hopefully throughout the world.
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