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Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Kennedy Administration, 1961–1963

During the years preceding his election to the presidency, John F. Kennedy's record of voting on issues of racial discrimination had been scant. Kennedy openly confessed to his closest advisors that during the first months of his presidency, his knowledge of the civil rights movement was "lacking".
For the first two years of the Kennedy Administration, attitudes to both the President and Attorney-General, Robert F. Kennedy, were mixed. Many viewed the Administration with suspicion. A well of historical cynicism toward white liberal politics had left a sense of uneasy disdain by African-Americans toward any white politician who claimed to share their concerns for freedom. Still, many had a strong sense that in the Kennedys there was a new age of political dialogue beginning.
Although observers frequently assert the phrase "The Kennedy Administration" or even, "President Kennedy" when discussing the legislative and executive support of the Civil Rights movement, between 1960 and 1963, many of the initiatives were the result of Robert Kennedy's passion. Through his rapid education in the realities of racism[citation needed], Robert Kennedy underwent a thorough conversion of purpose as Attorney-General. Asked in an interview in May 1962, "What do you see as the big problem ahead for you, is it Crime or Internal Security?" Robert Kennedy replied, "Civil Rights."[54] The President came to share his brother's sense of urgency on the matters to such an extent that it was at the Attorney-General's insistence that he made his famous address to the nation.[55]
When a white mob attacked and burned the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, where King held out with protesters, the Attorney-General telephoned King to ask him not to leave the building until the U.S. Marshals and National Guard could secure the area. King proceeded to berate Kennedy for "allowing the situation to continue". King later publicly thanked Robert Kennedy's commanding the force to break up an attack which might otherwise have ended King's life.
The relationship between the two men underwent change from mutual suspicion to one of shared aspirations. For Dr King, Robert Kennedy initially represented the 'softly softly' approach that in former years had disabled the movement of blacks against oppression in the U.S. For Robert Kennedy, King initially represented what he then considered an unrealistic militancy. Some white liberals regarded the militancy itself as the cause of so little governmental progress.
King initially regarded much of the efforts of the Kennedys as an attempt to control the movement and siphon off its energies. Yet he came to find the efforts of the brothers to be crucial. It was at Robert Kennedy's constant insistence, through conversations with King and others, that King came to recognize the fundamental nature of electoral reform and suffrage—the need for black Americans to actively engage not only protest but political dialogue at the highest levels. In time the President gained King's respect and trust, via the frank dialogue and efforts of the Attorney-General. Robert Kennedy became very much his brother's key advisor on matters of racial equality. The President regarded the issue of civil rights to be a function of the Attorney-General's office.
With a very small majority in Congress, the President's ability to press ahead with legislation relied considerably on a balancing game with the Senators and Congressmen of the South. Indeed, without the support of Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, who had years of experience in Congress and longstanding relations there, many of the Attorney-General's programs would not have progressed.
By late 1962, frustration at the slow pace of political change was balanced by the movement's strong support for legislative initiatives: housing rights, administrative representation across all US Government departments, safe conditions at the ballot box, pressure on the courts to prosecute racist criminals. King remarked by the end of the year, "This administration has reached out more creatively than its predecessors to blaze new trails [in voting rights and government appointments]. Its vigorous young men have launched imaginative and bold forays and displayed a certain élan in the attention they give to civil rights issues."[56]
From squaring off against Governor George Wallace, to "tearing into" Vice-President Johnson (for failing to desegregate areas of the administration), to threatening corrupt white Southern judges with disbarment, to desegregating interstate transport, Robert Kennedy came to be consumed by the Civil Rights movement and later carried it forward into his own bid for the presidency in 1968. On the night of Governor Wallace's capitulation, President Kennedy gave an address to the nation which marked the changing tide, an address which was to become a landmark for the change in political policy which ensued. In it President Kennedy spoke of the need to act decisively and to act now:
"We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes? Now the time has come for this Nation to fulfill its promise. The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or State or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them."
—President Kennedy, [57]
Assassination cut short the life and careers of both the Kennedy brothers and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The essential groundwork of the Civil Rights Act 1964 had been initiated before John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The dire need for political and administrative reform had been driven home on Capitol Hill by the combined efforts of the Kennedy brothers, Dr. King (and other leaders) and President Lyndon Johnson.
In 1966, Robert Kennedy undertook a tour of South Africa in which he championed the cause of the anti-Apartheid movement. His tour gained international praise at a time when few politicians dared to entangle themselves in the politics of South Africa. Kennedy spoke out against the oppression of the native population. He was welcomed by the black population as though a visiting head of state. In an interview with LOOK Magazine he said:
At the University of Natal in Durban, I was told the church to which most of the white population belongs teaches apartheid as a moral necessity. A questioner declared that few churches allow black Africans to pray with the white because the Bible says that is the way it should be, because God created Negroes to serve. "But suppose God is black", I replied. "What if we go to Heaven and we, all our lives, have treated the Negro as an inferior, and God is there, and we look up and He is not white? What then is our response?" There was no answer. Only silence.
—Robert Kennedy , LOOK Magazine[58]

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