John F Kennedy is not automatically associated with civil rights issues as Kennedy’s presidency is more famed for the Cuban Missile Crisis and issues surrounding the Cold War. Also, no visible civil rights legislation was signed by Kennedy. However, Kennedy did have a significant input into civil rights history – though posthumously. John Kennedy came from a wealthy and privileged Irish-American family. Even so, the family had to leave Boston, the city they are most famously associated with, and moved to New York. In Boston, the family had been held at arm’s length by those wealthy families who saw their Irish background as vulgar and the family’s wealth as lacking ‘classes. The Kennedy’s hoped that the more cosmopolitan New York would allow them to access high society. This introduction to bigotry and discrimination should have given Kennedy some empathetic understanding of what life was like for African Americans. However, the opposite would appear to be true.
Kennedy put political realism before any form of beliefs when he voted against Eisenhower’s 1957 Civil Rights Act. The route from bill to act nearly served to tear apart the Republicans and the Democrats were almost united to a politician in their opposition to the bill/act. Kennedy had aspirations to be the Democrats next presidential candidate in the 1960 election. If he were seen to be taking the party line and demonstrating strong leadership with regards to opposing the bill, this would do his chances no harm whatsoever. This proved to be the case, and Kennedy leads the Democrats to victory over Richard Nixon in 1960. However, during the presidential campaign and after he was nominated for the Democrats, Kennedy made it clear in his speeches that he was a supporter of civil rights. Historians are divided as to why he was ‘suddenly’ converted. Some saw the opposition to the 1957 Act as understandable from a political point of view.
Needed the ‘Black Vote’
Others have adopted a more cynical view which is that Kennedy recognized that he needed the ‘Black Vote’ if he was to beat Nixon. Hence why he said in his campaign speeches that discrimination stained America as it leads the West’s stance against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. He also said that a decent president could end unacceptable housing conditions by using federal power. The Democrats well publicized his call of sympathy to Martin Luther King’s wife, Coretta, when King was in prison. Now as president, Kennedy could either ignore discrimination, or he could act. He had promised in his campaign speeches to move swiftly if elected. The 1960 report by the Civil Rights Commission made it very ugly in clear statistics just how lousy discrimination had affected the African American community.