1961 May 30

“We’ve Been ‘Cooling Off’ for 350 Years!” Civil Rights Leader Rebukes AG Kennedy’s Call for Halting the 1961 Freedom Ride


James Farmer, leader of the Freedom Ride, publicly rebuked Attorney General Robert Kennedy on this day for suggesting a cooling off period for the Freedom Ride. Farmer said “We’ve been cooling off for 350 years.” Freedom Ride supporters subsequently responded by picketing the White House, criticizing the attorney general for his “cooling off” statement and suggestion that the freedom rides be suspended.

The Kennedy administration did not support the famous 1961 Freedom Ride, which began on May 4, 1961, primarily because President John Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy did not want a confrontation with Southern segregationists that would cost the president southern votes in Congress and also might result in embarrassing headlines. In the midst of the crisis, on May 20, 1961, President Kennedy issued a public statement that drew a moral equivalence between the freedom riders who were attempting to assert their right to interstate travel free of discrimination and the racists who had violently attacked them on May 14, 1961.

In general, President Kennedy’s record on civil rights was very weak. He disappointed civil rights leaders by failing to push for civil rights legislation or take other action. He delayed for almost two years in signing a limited ban on housing discrimination when federal funds were involved, which he had promised to sign during the 1960 campaign. He finally signed the order on November 20, 1962. He transformed his image on civil rights, on June 11, 1963, when he gave a famous nationally televised speech calling for a federal civil rights bill. Nonetheless, he tried to talk civil rights leaders out of what became the famous March on Washington on August 28, 1963, and responding to pressure from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, his brother as Attorney General authorized wiretaps on Martin Luther King on October 10, 1963.

Watch newsreel footage of the Freedom Rides: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6T50Ym94k8Y

Read a critical account of President Kennedy and civil rights: Nick Bryant, The Bystander: John F. Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality (2006)

Read about the Freedom Ride: Ray Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (2006)

Read more about James Farmerhttp://library.wustl.edu/units/spec/filmandmedia/collections/henry-hampton-collection/eyes1/farmer.htm

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