John Fitzgerald Kennedy, or JFK, served the President of the United States for less than a single full term in the early 1960s after serving in Congress for several terms before this. He was elected in 1960 and took office the following January, promising to explore new frontiers and bring the country to new heights. In late November of 1963, he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Despite the relatively short period of time in which he ruled the nation, Kennedy led the country to a period of heretofore unimaginable levels of financial success due to a thriving economy and also saved the country and the world from becoming embroiled in nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Kennedy dealt with Fidel Castro and the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War and the beginning of the war between the United States and the country of Vietnam in Eastern Asia. He also helped to ensure that by the end of the 1960s Americans would be the first to orbit the globe and then to land on the moon. It can be argued that he served during one of the most volatile periods in American history with major issues both at home and abroad. One of the most important contributions that Kennedy made to the United States during his presidency was to bring the Civil Rights Movement to the federal government and ensure that steps were taken to protect the rights of all American citizens. At first Kennedy hoped civil rights would be a non-issue in his administration, but it soon became obvious that this situation would become the legacy of his presidency. He accomplished this in three distinct ways: giving legitimacy and attention to the cause of the Civil Rights Movement as well as responding negatively to the southern authorities who were subverting this cause, being responsive to the issues of those involved in the quest for civil rights and making it a federal issue rather than a state matter, and by encouraging members of the youth population of both races to become activists in fighting for equality.
Attention to the Cause:
Kennedy's opponent in the 1960 election was Richard Millhouse Nixon who was the Republican candidate and had been Vice President of the United States. It looked like it was going to be a very tight race. Older and middle-aged people such as the World War II veterans supported Nixon while younger adults tended to side more with the Democrat Kennedy and his views on certain issues. Looking closely at their policies, it seems that the two men were actually quite similar. Both Nixon and Kennedy supported equality for African-Americans. The major difference seems to be in the decision whether or not to focus on this issue during their presidential campaign (Renka 2010). Richard Nixon, fearful of losing support from southerners who opposed civil rights, particularly the government office holders who felt opposed to it, backed down on the topic and this cost him in the end. Kennedy on the other hand made it no secret how he felt about civil rights and used it as a platform in the campaign. As everyone knows, Kennedy wound up winning the November election, thanks in no small part to African-Americans.
While running for president in 1960, John F. Kennedy received a large proportion of the African-American vote, at least of the African-Americans who could vote in that election. This was due to his pledge during the campaign that he intended to secure equal rights for African-Americans, something he put more effort into vocalizing than actually pursuing, at least at first. Kennedy hoped to stay out of the Civil Rights issue if at all possible. He came to the same conclusion as Nixon and realized that pursuing this agenda would likely alienate southern Senators and make his presidency very difficult and quite ineffective in terms of making laws. Without a cooperative Congress, it would be difficult if not impossible to get through any legislation, particularly the proposed laws which dealt with domestic issues (Grantham 1988,-page 156). Kennedy highlighted the issue of civil rights in his speeches but secretly hoped it would remain an issue relegated to the state government. His intentions were to focus on other issues and allow the civil rights problem to be dealt with by lower levels of government. Of course, this was not to be and Kennedy would have to become heavily involved in the movement eventually.
Following the end of the Civil War, African-Americans believed that they would finally be treated as human beings and equal with other Americans. For most people this was not to be the case, particularly if they lived in the American South. In southern states, Jim Crow laws allowed for African-Americans to be segregated against; they also negatively impacted whether African-Americans could vote, the level of education they could hope to obtain, the jobs they could take, and the social mobility that was available to them. This is how things remained for nearly a century with few if any challenges to this status quo. Things were much better, although far from perfect, for African-Americans who were living in northern states. Those who lived in the north could move up socially and consequently the majority of people in northern states lived unconcerned about their countrymen in the south. In the south, people were put into social positions where they were lucky to escape abject poverty. Achieving levels of social mobility was not even considered given that so many African-Americans were left without food, proper clothing, shoes, electricity, transportation, and any number of things which modern Americans take for granted.
Worse even than the lack of proper education or medical care, was the real likelihood of violence which would be perpetrated against African-Americans in the south by members of the white population. African-Americans were in constant fear of being victimized. They were frequently robbed and beaten for the slightest of infractions. Girls were often raped. Few law enforcement agencies would investigate these crimes and even fewer would make arrests. Even if someone was arrested for a crime against an African-American person, all white male juries and white male judges ensured that a miniscule number of white criminals were ever even slightly punished for crimes, even in cases of murder by lynching or beating. A lynch mob would gather together and beat a young African-American person, usually a male, and hang him from the bough of a tree using a homemade noose. The person would often strangle to death if they did not first die from the blood loss, as lynchings were usually started off as a severe beating. Northerners usually ignored these crimes when they heard about them or read about them in the newspapers. High profile cases such as the murder of young Emmett Till who was murdered at the age of 13 brought national attention to violence committed in the south and for a short period people would be outraged. Then this would subside and there would be a quick return to the norm. People were aware of hate groups like the Klu Klux Klan but the overwhelming psychological perspective was that it was a southern problem. Despite such cases, many people even in the south denied that racism and hate crimes were a major issue at all.
When Kennedy brought up the issue on a national level, suddenly it became a real, national if not universal problem. John F. Kennedy was highly respected and beloved by the majority of the American people. In only the first few months of office he had shown himself to be an intelligent and highly skilled leader. He could be trusted to do what was right for the country. If he said that segregation and marginalization of African-Americans was a very real issue with violent repercussions then it was accepted as being true. Further, if Kennedy said it was a northern and southern problem, then this must also be true. Only after he made his views on the issue known did people from the north and other groups reach out to try to help African-Americans to overcome their oppressors. Kennedy began working on the Civil Rights issue while still in the midst of the 1960 presidential campaign. He and his brother Robert called Georgia governor Ernest Vandiver and demanded the release of Martin Luther King, Jr. from prison after he had been arrested during a lunch counter protest (Dallek 2003,-page 292). In this one action, Kennedy showed the country his attitude towards African-American civil rights. Whereas many southern state authorities were encouraging the imprisonment of King and other so-called racially motivated agitators, Kennedy made a decisive stand against those archaic views and demanded equality for African-Americans which he wanted to be achieved through the judicial process.
During his first State of the Union address to Congress in January 1961, Kennedy famously stated: "The denial of constitutional rights to some of our fellow Americans on account of race -- at the ballot box…
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