Tuesday, March 10, 2009

JFK & Civil Rights

Obama gave a shout-out this morning during his education speech to John F. Kennedy for his civil rights work. It struck Ezra as "a little weird to start crediting Kennedy with civil rights. Good speech, but the guy who "handled" that was undoubtedly Johnson." I agree.

I've been reading Taylor Branch's excellent book Pillar of Fire, a history of the civil rights movement, and have been disappointed in JFK's lack of serious commitment to that struggle. Johnson seems to always get shafted, even though the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were both passed during his administration.

I twittered, "JFK had something to do with Civil Rights? That's news," in response to Obama's speech.

I was quickly sent a rather condescending reply from a reader:

Here's your newsflash, kid: June 6, 1963, Washington, DC. In a nationally televised address, President John F. Kennedy today urged the nation to take action toward guaranteeing equal treatment of every American regardless of race. Kennedy soon proposed legislation to Congress to outlaw public school segregation and discrimination in voting rights, public accommodations, federally assisted programs, and more. Following his assassination several months later, Kennedy's proposal was realized in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed segregation in businesses such as theaters, restaurants, and hotels and banned discriminatory practices in employment and ended segregation in public places such as swimming pools, libraries, and public schools.

Another reader came to my defense:

Candidate JFK promised to end discrimination in federal housing "with the stroke of a pen" when he became President and then nothing came of it for 3 years. The address that your reader is talking about, which was on June 11, was only given after George Wallace stole the spotlight by standing in the doorway of U of Alabama. JFK, in terms of legislation or executive action, did no more for civil rights than Eisenhower and did less than FDR, Truman, LBJ and Nixon.

Now, with all that said, he inspired a generation to get involved with the struggle and African Americans identified with him, so you can't judge on legislative achievement alone. And, who knows what would have happened had he not been assassinated? But, the sad fact is that the 1964 and 1965 acts as we know them would have never NEVER been passed if he had lived. LBJ's ties with the Southern Democrats in Senate and the cloak of JFK's legacy got those 2 acts passed.

I'd have to agree with the second reader- JFK, although inspirational, wasn't an entirely dedicated champion of civil rights.

It seems that many older people, who were young during JFK's era, have a tendency to mythologize JFK's policies. The same people tend to do the same with Bill Clinton, a lackluster President. We should always respect the history and look beyond the mythology.

1 comment:

  1. Truman prepared the roadbed, Kennedy laid down the asphalt, Johnson drove the truck. (Grassroots activists hacked the initial path through a scary wilderness full of killers.) One thing to remember about presidents is that they are very much formed by the circumstances they find themselves in; Kennedy's circumstances with regard to civil rights were extremely limited for a number of reasons (dominance of Southern senators, razor thin margin of victory, etc.), so his laying of the asphalt, in the June speech, was noteworthy, and worth honoring. Johnson's circumstancs were much more capacious (a huge victory in '64, a massive desire in the country to honor JFK's memory, etc.).