1963 June 11

President Kennedy Gives Historic Civil Rights Speech on National Television


In response to the massive civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, which inspired similar demonstrations across the country, President John F. Kennedy delivered a speech on national television promising to send a civil rights bill to Congress. The Birmingham demonstrations sparked national and international outrage because of the use of police dogs and fire hoses against demonstration on May 3, 1963. They also inspired civil rights demonstrations protesting discrimination against African-Americans all across the country. Until his speech on this day, President Kennedy had not been a strong supporter of militant civil rights demonstrations, but the speech completely transformed his image and his reputation on the issue of civil rights. After his assassination, an amended and strengthened version of his bill became the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act, on July 2, 1964.

A BUSY DAY FOR CIVIL LIBERTIES: This day was filled with civil rights and civil liberties drama. Early in the day, President Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard and authorized the Secretary of Defense to use the unit in the event of further obstruction to the integration of the University of Alabama. Also on this day, Kennedy called for an immigration reform law (see the separate event). That idea became the historic 1965 Immigration Reform Act, which President Lyndon Johnson signed into law on October 3, 1965, in a ceremony at the Statue of Liberty.

President Kennedy: “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 a land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or cast 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.”

See and hear Kennedy’s famous speech:

Watch the speech: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BEhKgoA86U

Read: Nick Bryant, The Bystander: John F. Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality (2006)

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