Today marks the 45th anniversary of the 1963 march on Washington for civil rights. Today is also the day when Sen. Barack Obama will formally accept the Democratic presidential nomination. Therefore, we can expect a massive number of stories about the 1963 march. It is doubtful that many of them will remind us that the whole point of the march was to put pressure on a Democratic president and an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress to do something on civil rights.
Dwight Eisenhower and the Republicans had been excoriated by John F. Kennedy during the 1960 campaign for not doing more on civil rights and Kennedy pledged a comprehensive civil-rights bill as soon as Congress reconvened. He also promised executive orders ending discrimination in housing and hiring as soon as he took office. “Many things can be done by a stroke of the presidential pen,” Kennedy said. But once in the White House, he basically didn’t do anything on civil rights — no executive orders, no legislation, no nothing. He even had to be pressured into appointing a liaison to the civil-rights community — and then named a white man, Harris Wofford. In what Kennedy must have viewed as a low blow, the New York Times observed no difference between his policies on civil rights and Eisenhower’s.
Kennedy seemed to think that all he had to do was appoint a few token blacks to administration positions and that would be enough to keep them happy. This was the way the Democratic party in Massachusetts had always gotten the black vote and Kennedy saw no reason to change. But by 1961, it was not nearly enough; the civil-rights movement was too far advanced for that.
Moreover, the time was ripe for another legislative effort. In early 1961, House Speaker Sam Rayburn (D., Texas), went to considerable trouble to reform the House Rules Committee just to accommodate Kennedy’s anticipated civil-rights legislation. Plans were also made to limit an expected Senate filibuster and Vice President Richard Nixon, as president of the Senate, was prepared to make a critical ruling on the matter before leaving office on January 20. But Kennedy refused to lend his support to the effort for fear of alienating southerners like Sen. Richard B. Russell (D., Ga.) and it died.
When black leaders pressed Kennedy for a civil-rights bill, he brushed them off and none was forthcoming. Nor was the Justice Department much interested in using its new powers under the 1957 and 1960 civil-rights bills enacted under Eisenhower. “I did not lie awake at night worrying about the problems of Negroes,” Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the president’s brother, confessed.
President Kennedy remained sensitive to southern concerns, appointing judges unlikely to push too hard on desegregation and resisting pressure to appoint a black to the Supreme Court when Justice Charles Whittaker retired in 1962. A black judge, William Hastie, who had been named to the federal appeals court by Harry Truman, was considered by Kennedy but rejected as unqualified. Among Kennedy’s circuit court appointees was William Harold Cox, who had been Mississippi Senator James O. Eastland’s college roommate and shared his political philosophy. The Eisenhower administration had previously rejected Eastland’s recommendation of his friend for a judicial appointment on the grounds that Cox was a racist.
When Kennedy finally got around to issuing an executive order against housing discrimination, it was not until after the 1962 elections in order to protect Southern congressmen and senators from the fallout. The order was also severely watered-down from what he promised during the campaign, with so many escape hatches that its impact was mostly symbolic. By the end of the year, liberal historian Howard Zinn was complaining that the Kennedy administration had an “undeserved reputation” for supporting civil rights.
Meanwhile, the Kennedy administration was irritated by the Civil Rights Commission — Bobby Kennedy likened it to the House Committee on Un-American Activities — and prohibited it from having access to Justice Department files on voting-rights abuses. Although the department pressed forward with voting rights cases, it did so slowly and without enthusiasm. Nor did the administration take any action to hasten school desegregation. In fact, Kennedy empathized with white parents, saying it was “really tough” for them to put their children into classes with blacks. University of Alaska historian Kenneth O’Reilly summarizes the approach of both Jack and Bobby Kennedy during 1961 and 1962:
John Kennedy designed the something-for-everyone approach to placate both the Democratic Party’s northern liberal wing and southern states’ rights wing. He offered voting rights litigation and affirmative action initiatives to one wing, the appointment of segregationist judges and a rejection of the Civil Rights Commission’s legislative agenda to the other wing. . . . The Kennedys saw no political gain in pushing too hard for voting rights for southern blacks. They also had no moral commitment to the cause. By their own account they pursued voting rights as the least objectionable and least intrusive course of action. If it had not been for the pressure brought by the civil rights movement, in all probability the Kennedys would not have moved at all.
The result of the Kennedy administration’s half-hearted approach to civil rights — Martin Luther King Jr. branded it “tokenism” in early 1963 — led to a radicalization of the movement. Civil-rights demonstrations increased in number and intensity, leading to ever more violent responses by local law-enforcement officials in the South. The escalation peaked in early 1963, when King began his Birmingham, Alabama campaign. Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor, who was also the state’s National Democratic Committeeman, was easily baited into attacking the civil-rights demonstrators with police dogs, fire hoses, and nightsticks.
Kennedy proposed his civil-rights bill in June 1963 — two and a half years after entering the White House — to blunt the political impact of the ongoing civil-rights demonstrations, which were dragging down his popularity. In May 1963, his approval percentage was down 15 points from a year earlier and his disapproval rating had doubled from 12 percent to 25 percent. Kennedy’s legislation would have provided equal access to hotels and restaurants, broadened the authority of the Justice Department to bring school-desegregation law suits, banned discrimination in federal hiring and by businesses holding federal contracts, and created a Community Relations Service to mediate racial disputes.
Many liberals were concerned that the legislation was far more limited than it appeared to be because businesses would have had to have a “substantial” connection with interstate commerce before the equal access provisions applied. They thought the White House erred in basing constitutional authority for the legislation solely on the interstate commerce clause, rather than relying on the broader authority contained in the 14th Amendment. Liberals also believed that Kennedy had the power under existing law to do many of the things authorized by the new law. They were concerned that if the law was defeated, it might foreclose this option. The courts might feel that he wouldn’t have asked for the power if he thought he already had it and might also take note of Congress’s rejection of the legislation to prohibit executive action on civil rights.
In August, black leaders organized a massive march on Washington in support of the civil-rights bill. Some had to be restrained, however, from using the occasion to bash the legislation as “too little, too late,” as John Lewis, president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, planned to do before being talked out of it. Others, like Malcolm X, refused to participate in the march at all, labeling it the “Farce on Washington,” because the whole thing was being manipulated by the White House solely for its own political benefit. Indeed, two Kennedy aides stood by the public-address system at the Lincoln Memorial, prepared to literally pull the plug in the event that any of the speeches got out of hand.
Some in the administration were alarmed by the march. Among these was J. Edgar Hoover, whom Kennedy reappointed to head the FBI as one of his first actions in office. Hoover was convinced that the entire civil-rights movement was basically a Communist front and requested wiretaps on King and other civil-rights leaders. Attorney General Robert Kennedy approved them, which could be done in those days without a court order. Although Hoover may have really believed that King was a Communist dupe, Kennedy’s interest was purely political. Because King was the central figure in the large and growing civil-rights movement, he was plugged into everyone, making him an invaluable source of political intelligence. The Communist connection was just an excuse to get it as far as Kennedy was concerned.
By late 1963, civil-rights leaders were openly disparaging President Kennedy’s civil-rights record. In the words of University of Nebraska historian Thomas Borstelmann, “the Kennedy Administration was beginning to seem almost as much the enemy as the Ku Klux Klan and local law enforcement officers.”
Liberals pointed to a report by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission that was highly critical of federal activities under White House control. For example, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare continued to make construction grants to hospitals reserved for whites only. The Department of Labor was cited for operating training programs in 142 all-white schools and just 14 black schools. The Commission noted that although Kennedy’s order banning housing discrimination had been in effect for almost a year, nothing had been done to implement it. In terms of voting rights, the Commission reported that only 8.3 percent of blacks in 100 Southern counties were registered to vote, a trivial increase over the five percent that were registered in 1956.
Nevertheless, when Kennedy was assassinated the following month, he was deeply mourned in the black community despite the paucity of his accomplishments on civil rights. Like Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy had succeeded in making the most of largely symbolic efforts on behalf of blacks, while consistently shying away from more substantive actions. Historian Garry Wills says that whatever he accomplished in the area of civil rights was “largely inadvertent.”
– Adapted from Bruce Bartlett’s book, Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past, recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.