The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s was a multi-faceted movement with many dimensions and complex questions. One of the largest questions that has been raised was whether the movement was effective in drawing the attention of the two presidents who led most of the 1960’s. There is also an historical opinion that opines that no matter how badly the protestors were treated, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were uninterested in the cause. This could not be any further from the truth. Both Kennedy and Johnson expressed disdain over the treatment of the protestors, and their response was to enact some of the most sweeping legislation that ever came through the United States Congress. Both Presidents provided actionable proof that they supported civil rights and would do what it would take to obtain equality for all people. Kennedy was a bit more reluctant in his support, while Johnson became a surprising advocate for Civil Rights, passing both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In order to understand President Kennedy’s perspective on the question of civil rights, we must understand his domestic policy and his civil rights record before the Presidency. We also have to look at how and why he received so much of the African-American vote. Kennedy’s domestic policy was one of consensus. In other words, he worked to get everyone to work together, instead of pursuing their own agenda. Kennedy also did not have a mandate, due to the coalition between the Republicans and the Southern Democrats. Kennedy’s record on civil rights is mixed, as he supported the Southern position on several crucial amendments to a 1957 civil rights bill. To that end, his Presidency operated in much the same way, offering only rhetorical support, but eventually succumbing to activist pressure. For example, he delays signing a crucial housing discrimination executive order until his office is inundated with pens from the NAACP. After this, Kennedy saw the need for a comprehensive civil rights bill that would work to help all that were facing the ravages of inequality. Kennedy also responded quite forcefully to the scenes of protestors being hosed down by police. From this, he saw the need for expansive civil rights legislation that would offer a comprehensive solution to the problem. He also saw civil rights as a drawback for American supremacy in the Third World. This was a problem as we were competing with the Soviet Union for this supremacy.
After the death of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson became president. He also became an unlikely civil rights hero to the movement, picking up where President Kennedy left off and creating a sweeping civil rights bill that began addressing the question of inequality that had been plaguing the country. Johnson got his start as an elementary school teacher teaching minorities. Johnson believed that their only way out of the situation in which they found themselves was through education, and he strongly encouraged his pupils. Johnson was more an advocate of smaller actions rather than sweeping reform, as he felt that such large-scale reform would lead to violence. He slowly began to change his stance on civil rights issues, beginning to favor large-scale change. He showed this in force with his vision for a “Great Society.” Johnson had many laws and acts passed in order to end racial inequality. After the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, Johnson had the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed. He also passed the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1968 Civil Rights Act. The 1965 Voting Rights Act passed due to Martin Luther King Jr’s advocacy in trying to register African-Americans to vote. By his actions, Johnson helped to systematically end legal segregation. Though some de facto segregation remained, it became increasingly difficult to maintain the “old guard” when such new laws were supplanting the past.
In retrospect, one can say that the Civil Rights Movement was a success and attained its goals. It spurred one President to action and encouraged another to change his worldview and pursue sweeping legislation that would ultimately revolutionize the country. The Presidents in question were undeniably willing to participate in the civil rights process, especially when it was viewed in a world perspective. Their actions (or potential actions) spoke volumes about their intentions. It is unfortunate that his assassination kept Kennedy’s dream from being realized. Johnson’s record on civil rights proved that he was a man of his word. While the battle for civil rights may have abated, it is far from over. We must continue these two men’s dreams and work towards a society that is more equal for everyone.