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John F. Kennedy Faced Civil Rights Opponents In His Own Party


One of the goals of the 1963 march was to prod Congress to pass civil rights legislation. President Kennedy had proposed a comprehensive bill earlier that summer, but he faced unrelenting opposition from lawmakers, many in his own party. NPR's Brian Naylor has this look back.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: 1963 was a watershed year in the civil rights movement. Civil rights demonstrators in Danville, Virginia, were hosed and beaten. In Birmingham, Alabama, there were lunch counter sit-ins and police turned fire hoses on protesters there. At the University, Governor George Wallace stood in the school house door to block integration. It was against that backdrop that on the evening of June 11th, President John F. Kennedy delivered a 15-minute televised address, calling for passage of civil rights legislation.


PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: We face therefore a moral crisis as a country and the people that cannot be met by repressive police action, that cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is a time to act.

NAYLOR: Among the goals of Kennedy's legislation was banning segregation in public accommodations such as restaurants and hotels, and allowing the government to file suit against schools that discriminated. But it would be no easy task to get Congress to act. Southern Democrats virulently opposed efforts by Washington to end segregation. University of South Carolina Professor Patricia Sullivan says it was a hard slog.

PATRICIA SULLIVAN: Once the president took his stand and put forward this legislation, they had to figure out how to navigate, you know, a rules committee headed by Howard Smith, a leading segregationist in Virginia, and a Judiciary committee in the Senate headed by Senator James Eastland from Mississippi. So there was a lot of back room work and strategizing that would take time.

NAYLOR: South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, then a Democrat, epitomized the opposition to the civil rights bill. Six years earlier, he famously conducted the Senate's longest filibuster, talking for more than 24 hours in an unsuccessful effort to block the 1957 Civil Rights Act. In 1963, he made clear he thought no more of Kennedy's bill.


SENATOR STROM THURMOND: These so-called civil rights proposals, which the president has sent to Capitol Hill for enactment into law, are unconstitutional, unnecessary, unwise and extend beyond the realm of reason.

NAYLOR: Civil rights leaders, meanwhile, quickly added a call to pass the civil rights bill to the agenda of their planned march for jobs and freedom in Washington, though some felt it didn't go far enough. John Lewis, the future congressman and then head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, believed the measure was too little too late. But in his speech that August 28, he prodded Congress to act.

JOHN LEWIS: If we do not get meaningful legislation out of this Congress, the time will come when we will not confine our march into Washington. We will march through the south, through the streets of Jackson, through the streets of Danville, through the streets of Cambridge, through the streets of Birmingham.

NAYLOR: Eventually, the hundreds of thousands gathered on the Mall began making their own call on Congress.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Pass the bill. Pass the bill.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You may be able to hear in the background, the crowd is beginning to chant pass the bill, pass the bill. Of course, this means pass the civil rights legislation that is now before Congress.

NAYLOR: The fall of 1963 was marked by tragedies and progress on civil rights legislation. On September 15th, four young African-American girls were killed in a bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Later that month, a House panel reached agreement on a civil rights bill more far-reaching than the administration proposed. President Kennedy was closely involved in the give and take over the legislation. In this archived tape from an October White House meeting, the president discusses a committee vote break down.


KENNEDY: We were under the impression yesterday that we were talking about nine Democrats, eight Republicans, giving us 17. Corman said he would vote with us if we had these eight Republicans.

NAYLOR: A few weeks later, President Kennedy was dead. His civil rights legislation, however, became the focus of a push by the new president, Lyndon Johnson, who, in a late November address to Congress, urged action.


PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.

NAYLOR: By the following July, Johnson got his wish, signing the Civil rights Act of 1964 into law. And after a year of violent deaths and peaceful demonstrations, one of Congress' signature achievements was forged. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.


CORNISH: This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.