Fifty years ago today, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. It was one of the darkest moments of American history and was followed five years later by the assassinations of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, President Kennedy’s brother. All three men shared our forefathers’ belief that all men are created equal, and today, on the anniversary of his death, we can celebrate JFK’s life by taking a look at his role in the advancement of civil rights in education.
America on the precipice of change
When President Kennedy took office in 1961, America was a far different place from what it is today. Racial tensions often turned violent. The voting rights of minorities were threatened by discriminatory practices. Segregation was the norm throughout large swaths of the country, particularly in the South. And despite the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. the Board of Education that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, many did not obey the decision.
On January 30, 1961, President Kennedy delivered his first State of the Union Address and provided some insights into his position on civil rights: “The denial of constitutional rights to some of our fellow Americans on account of race—at the ballot box and elsewhere—disturbs the national conscience, and subjects us to the charge of world opinion that our democracy is not equal to the high promise of our heritage.” This, along with other sentiments he shared in the address, set the tone for his presidency.
The Ole Miss riot
In September of 1962, James Howard Meredith, an African American, set out to enroll at the University of Mississippi. Despite the fact that the Brown v. the Board of Education ruling meant the school had to be desegregated, Meredith initially was not allowed to enter, leading to what is now known as the Ole Miss riot of 1962. When the scene at the campus turned violent, Robert Kennedy, then Attorney General, sent federal marshals and President Kennedy sent U.S. Army troops. Two people were killed and dozens were injured in the mêlée, but in the end, Meredith was able to enroll. He graduated in August of 1963 with a degree in political science and went on to study law at Columbia University.
The Civil Rights Address
June 11, 1963, was a pivotal day in JFK’s presidency. When Alabama Governor George Wallace blocked the doorway to prevent two African American students from entering the University of Alabama, Kennedy exercised the full power of the federal government to intervene on their behalf. He federalized the Alabama National Guard, thereby putting them under his command instead of the governor’s. Wallace backed down when confronted by the guardsmen, and the students were allowed to enroll.
That night, in response to the day's events, Kennedy delivered his now famous Civil Rights Address, during which he asked Congress to “enact legislation giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public” and to “authorize the federal government to participate more fully in lawsuits designed to end segregation in public education.”
Sadly, just after Kennedy concluded this speech, civil rights activist Medgar Evers was killed in his own driveway in Jackson, Mississippi. Evers was among those who had helped James Meredith gain admission to the University of Mississippi, and Medgar Evers College in New York was named for him when it opened in 1970. His assassination underscored the severity of the country’s racial discord and the urgency of Kennedy’s Civil Rights Address.
A lasting legacy
Six months after Kennedy delivered that hopeful and revolutionary address, his life was cut tragically short. But President Lyndon Johnson carried his predecessor’s torch and signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a groundbreaking piece of legislation that embodied many of Kennedy’s civil rights objectives. The Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of color, religion, sex, or national origin, and its passage put an end to segregation in schools, the workplace, and other public areas.
As President Kennedy said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” Kennedy set in motion the wheels of change that altered the course of American history, and we continue to see the aftereffects of his presidency today. Despite the mystique of his family name and lingering conspiracy theories surrounding his death, JFK’s legacy is ultimately one of courage, equality, and undying faith in the American Dream.