1961 May 20

President Kennedy Fails to Support Freedom Ride


President John F. Kennedy on this day, in the midst of the national crisis over the Freedom Ride, failed to make a strong statement in support of the Freedom Riders who were attempting to assert their constitutional right to interstate travel without discrimination, or to condemn the racists who violently attacked them. In fact, Kennedy’s statement (see below) drew a moral equivalence between the actions of the two groups. As his statement indicates, Kennedy was more interested in avoiding violence than in protecting civil rights.

The 1961 Freedom Ride challenging racial segregation in buses in the deep south was one of the iconic events of the civil rights movement (May 4, 1961). The Freedom Riders were attacked and viciously beaten by white racists in Alabama, and photographs of a burning bus, set on fire by the attackers, galvanized the nation (see May 14, 1961).

In general, President Kennedy had a weak record on civil rights. In the Freedom Ride crisis, in fact, Attorney General Robert Kennedy made a secret deal with Mississippi Senator James O. Eastland in which Freedom Riders to be immediately arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, in return for a promise of no violence against them (May 24, 1961). In short, the Kennedys traded fundamental rights for peace and quiet. In other actions, Kennedy delayed for almost two years 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, but took that step only because the demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, had created a national crisis. 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.

President Kennedy: “I would also hope that any persons, whether a citizen of Alabama or a visitor there, would refrain from any action which would in any way tend to provoke further outbreaks.”

Read Kennedy’s full statement: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/print.php?pid=8142

Read: 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)

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