JFK's Legacy in Civil Rights and Education

On the 50th anniversary of his death, we can honor JFK's life by remembering his role in the advancement of civil rights in education.

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.

Like what you’re reading?

Join the CollegeXpress community! Create a free account and we’ll notify you about new articles, scholarship deadlines, and more.

Join Now

civil rights diversity equality

About Stephanie Farah

Stephanie Farah

Stephanie Farah is a former writer and senior editor for Carnegie and CollegeXpress. She holds a BA in English from the University of Texas at Austin and a master's in Journalism from the University of North Texas. At various times, she has been an uncertain undergrad, a financial aid recipient, a transfer applicant, and a grad student with an assistantship and a full ride. Stephanie is an avid writer, traveler, cook, and dog owner. 


Join our community of
over 5 million students!

CollegeXpress has everything you need to simplify your college search, get connected to schools, and find your perfect fit.

Join CollegeXpress
Jeannie Borin, M.Ed.

Jeannie Borin, M.Ed.

President and Founder, College Connections

I frequently visit CollegeXpress to answer questions from students and parents. There are countless hot topics in admissions that need to be addressed. I enjoy reading what my colleagues post and gain additional insight from different perspectives.

Maria  Fernanda

Maria Fernanda

High School Class of 2023

CollegeXpress is always telling you with time to spare when to apply for certain scholarships, what they require, and if you’re eligible or not. They also provide helpful tips for both incoming college students and current college students, such as what to absolutely have in your dorm.

Rayan Hamdan

Rayan Hamdan

High School Student

I joined CollegeXpress just a few months ago. I had been struggling with severe anxiety, causing me to not be able to tour schools and make sure a college would be perfect for me. I came across CollegeXpress one day when I was searching for colleges online, and it completely changed the game. I was easily able to choose colleges that would suit me, and I also entered a few giveaways! Thank you so much!



High School Class of 2021

CollegeXpress helped me find Allegheny College with the super-user-friendly search tool for both schools and scholarships. Using CollegeXpress, I was able to search for programs I was interested in studying and find colleges that offered those programs. Also, once you search for the college, CollegeXpress can get you connected!

Lexie Knutson

Lexie Knutson

High School Class of 2021

This whole website has helped me overcome the attitude I had before. I was scared to even approach the thought of college because it was so much. I knew it wasn’t just a few easy steps, and I panicked mostly, instead of actually trying. Without realizing it, CollegeXpress did exactly what I usually do when I panic, which is take it one step at a time. With college I forget that because it’s more than just a small to-do list, but this website was really helpful and overall amazing. So thank you!

College Matches