While President John F. Kennedy became a symbol of civil rights after his assassination, that wasn’t always the case for the former U.S. Senator and Congressman. On this day in 1963, President Kennedy delivered his famous” Report to the American People on Civil Rights” address on radio and television, which led to the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Kennedy, like many politicians at the time, was at a crossroads in how the burgeoning civil rights movement set off a clash between those seeking equal rights and southerners who clung desperately to Jim Crow laws. In May of 1963, a federal judge approved the admittance of Vivian Malone and James Hood into the University of Alabama at the time open only to whites.
Malone and Hood’s admittance into the university was blocked by Alabama Gov. George Wallace himself on June 11, which prompted President Kennedy and his team to deliver the address. The team had mere hours to complete the speech, carefully constructing the address in such a way as to not cause a rift with the South.
“This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded 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,” Kennedy said in the speech, which aired live on all the major networks and radio stations. According to accounts, thousands of positive telegrams came in after the speech but there was still plenty of dissent from the South.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. also took in the speech while in Atlanta, famously saying to Walter E. Fauntroy, “Walter, can you believe that white man not only stepped up to the plate, he hit it over the fence!”
King sent a telegram to President Kennedy to praise him for the speech, and civil rights leader and future U.S. Congressman John Lewis also shared his approval.
While it has never been directly connected, after the speech, Mississippi civil rights activist Medgar Evers was gunned down in his driveway in the wee hours of the following morning.
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