JFK's historic civil rights speech revisited 50 years later

OPINION - Would President Kennedy think that as a nation we have made enough progress on these issues over the last five decades?...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Fifty years ago today, President John F. Kennedy delivered the second of back-to-back speeches; the first, delivered on June 10, 1963 was an impressive call to reverse the trajectory of an emergent Cold War with the Soviet Union. It was a potent call for peace from the precipice of the rising military industrial complex.

The second speech, delivered via television, a “Report to the American People on Civil Rights,” almost didn’t happen.

President Kennedy had planned for this speech to serve as a necessary intervention into then Alabama governor George Wallace’s threats to challenge the integration of the University of Alabama, but the governor’s bark was worse than his bite and the integration of the first two black students at the the school occurred without much incident – at least by the standards established by the violent resistance to the struggle for racial equality in Alabama circa 1963.

A reluctant advocate for civil rights

JFK credited the students of U of A “who met their responsibilities in a constructive way.”  Historians have noted that Kennedy was a reluctant champion of civil rights for both political and practical reasons.  Politically he understood the likelihood of losing southern constituents of the Democratic Party especially if he pushed too forcefully on racial equality.

And from a practical perspective, Kennedy believed that other national issues – the economy and the political and ideological conflicts with global communism – took precedence over America’s festering racial issues.

Listening to the speech now, JFK’s moral courage on racial issues as well as the heavy lifting still required to attain true racial equality in this nation become poignantly apparent. President Kennedy argued that “ . . . it ought to be possible for American citizens of any color to register to vote in a free election without interference . . .”

This particular assertion, along with the activism, blood, sweat, and tears of the civil rights movement, laid the groundwork for the diverse demographics of our modern Democratic party.

Establishing the need for racial equality

But this year, the Supreme Court has signaled its willingness to rule against the viability of Section 5 of the Voter Rights Act, the clause that compels voting districts to undergo a “pre-clearance” procedure before making any changes to district boundaries and/or local voting processes.  This aspect of the Voting Rights act is what Justice Antonin Scalia referred to as a “racial entitlement.”

Early on in the speech, President Kennedy establishes the need for racial equality by quantifying the inequality that existed between black and white Americans:

The Negro baby born in America today . . . has about one-half as much chance of completing a high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day, one-third as much chance of completing college, one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man, twice as much chance of becoming unemployed, about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year, a life expectancy which is 7 years shorter, and the prospects of earning only half as much.

These were the cold hard facts of discrimination, white supremacy, and systematic injustice. Would President Kennedy think that as a nation we have made enough progress on these issues over the last five decades?