There is perhaps no modern President whose legacy resonates in the public consciousness as much as John F. Kennedy's. It was, in a sense, the first modern presidency: The first to be televised—from its historic inauguration to those shocking final moments in Dallas fifty years ago today—and the first to truly grapple with the maelstrom of social unrest that would lead eventually to the posthumous passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, just months after his death. In this first of two posts on JFK's legacy, we reach into some of our recent books for look at the Kennedy administration's complex and evolving relationship with race and the Civil Rights Movement, starting with the struggle between the Kennedy's Secretary of the Interior Stewart Lee Udall and Washington Redskins owner George Marshall over the integration of his team, and ending with an on-the-ground accounting of the 1963 March on Washington for Civil Rights, and JFK's meeting with the major civil rights leaders of the time.
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From Showdown: JFK and the Integration of the Washington Redskins by Thomas G. Smith:
The national capital was splashed by sun and heaped with snow during Kennedy’s inauguration. Udall had convinced JFK to invite Robert Frost to read a poem, but the sun’s glare caused the esteemed New England poet to stumble over the lines he had written for the occasion. But despite Frost’s “fumble” and the winter chill, the Kennedy inaugural was generally well received. Although more blacks were invited to participate in the festivities than ever before, some African Americans were disappointed that Kennedy had not invited Martin Luther King Jr. and had not mentioned civil rights in his inaugural address with its now-famous line “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
Many civil rights activists were also disappointed to learn that Kennedy did not plan to advance the cause of racial justice by asking Congress for more laws immediately. He would shun “the forward pass,” grumbled Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, in favor of surer gains through symbolic gestures and limited executive action. When an all-white Coast Guard squad paraded by during the inauguration, Kennedy voiced his displeasure over the absence of African Americans to his aide Richard Goodman. Once in office, he had Goodwin contact the commander of the Coast Guard with instructions to integrate the Coast Guard Academy, as well as future parade groups.
In his first few months in office, JFK appointed more than forty blacks to important federal positions. He also named the first African American, John B. Duncan, to the Board of Commissioners of the District of Columbia. To the dismay of blacks, though, he also named some white supremacists to the federal bench and failed to deliver promptly on a campaign promise to abolish discrimination in federally subsidized housing and to seek civil rights legislation ending discrimination in public places. In early March 1961, he issued an executive order creating the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, with the aim of ending discrimination in federal employment and federally contracted jobs.
Knowing that JFK and Attorney General Robert Kennedy were committed to ending racial discrimination in hiring, Udall, after consulting with Interior Department lawyers, decided to challenge the hiring practices of George Marshall. He decided to move against the Washington “Paleskins,” he later recalled, because he “had personal convictions about civil rights and considered it outrageous that the Redskins were the last team in the NFL to have a lily-white policy.” He did not discuss his proposed action with JFK beforehand because he “instinctively felt that JFK and RFK would applaud. To me, it was the kind of stance that was all on the plus side.” Besides, he knew that JFK was about to issue the executive order establishing the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity and his action complied with the spirit of that executive order.
Instead of speaking with the president personally, Udall notified him of the proposed action against the Redskins in his “Weekly Report to the President.” (JFK detested meetings, preferring to communicate with his cabinet through memoranda.) On February 28, 1961, Udall wrote: “George Marshall of the Washington Redskins is the only segregationist hold-out in professional football. He refuses to hire Negro players even thought [sic] Dallas and Houston, Texas have already broken the color bar. The Interior Department owns the ground on which the new Washington Stadium is constructed, and we are investigating to ascertain whether a no-discrimination provision could be inserted in Marshall’s lease. Marshall is one of the few remaining Jim Crow symbols in American sports, and we believe such action would have a wide impact in the civil rights field.”
Udall understood that civil rights activists would welcome his bold move. But he did not accurately assess the national attention that it would receive, or that it would provoke a showdown with a combative sports owner who was described by one black newspaper as “a throwback to the racial savagery of the early twenties.” The eyes of Washington and the nation would be watching to see whether the White House or the Redskins would blink first.
From Nobody Turn Me Around: A People's History of the 1963 March on Washington by Charles Euchner:
The 1964 election was the specter haunting the White House. Kennedy owed his narrow victory in 1960 to the black vote. Cities with big black populations like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, and St. Louis gave Kennedy big majorities that offset weaknesses in ruraland suburban areas. But Kennedy also won six states of the old Confederacy (and five of eleven electoral votes in Alabama).
But for all practical purposes, maneuvering to save the Southern vote ended when Kennedy gave his June 11 televised speech on race:
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 will 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 face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and 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 facts 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.
That speech changed everything. Kennedy now stood firmly on the side of the movement. Events forced Kennedy’s hand. “They got scared,” said one politician. “All at once they saw a national situation out of control. You know as well as I that we could have martial law in one hundred cities all over the country.”
For weeks, Martin Luther King and his advisers debated whether to make President Kennedy or Congress the movement’s target. King resented Kennedy’s hesitance to embrace civil rights. But when the president proposed the most important civil rights bill since Reconstruction, King was jubilant. “He was really great,” King told Stanley Levison. Congress should be the target of protests.
Two days after submitting his bill, Kennedy hosted the leaders of the March on Washington and gamely asked them to call off the march. Protest in the streets, he said, could only serve to anger Congress and hurt the bill. “Mr. President, they’re already in the streets,” Phil Randolph said.
And so rather that resisting the march, President Kennedy embraced it.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Author of two books, Thomas G. Smith is a member of the history program at Nichols College. He lives in Dudley, Massachusetts, and is a fervent fan of the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Dodgers.
Charles Euchner is the author of books about politics, sports, and cities. He is the creator of The Writing Code, the only brain-based system for mastering writing and editing. He was executive director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at Harvard University.