Becoming JFK: A Profile in Communication

By Vito N. Silvestri | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 18
Civil Rights: Kennedy Initiates the
Second Reconstruction

One of the major achievements of the Kennedy administration was its contribution toward advancing the civil rights movement. Kennedy's role evolved as events unfolded during his presidency. Ultimately, in 1963, he committed the government to the cause of civil rights.


Historical Background

The 1896 Supreme Court decision on Plessy vs. Ferguson denied civil rights to African-Americans by supporting "separate but equal" facilities. This ruling initiated a long, slow movement to restore the lost guarantee of equality for black people in America. The NAACP's legal victories over the next eighty years, the large number of African Americans who served in World War II and were not willing to accept lesser status on their return, the assertiveness of the Urban League and the Congress of Racial Equality, and the influence of the nonviolent movement of Gandhi and his followers in India, all served to maintain the midcentury impetus toward equality.

The great breakthrough, however, came with the Supreme Court decision of 1954, which reversed the "separate but equal" ruling of 1896, applying it to school desegregation and opening the door to strike down other segregation practices. In 1955, the Supreme Court strengthened its earlier decision by adding that desegregation should take place "with all deliberate speed." The court then assigned implementation jurisdiction to the federal district courts.

A new militancy marked the decade of the fifties: the year-long Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama, the development of White Citizens Councils dedicated to white supremacy, the passive-resistance movement of young African-Americans, and the reaction of both whites and blacks during the intense years of school desegregation, which frequentlyd forced

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