Kennedy Years 1961-1963


John Fitzgerald Kennedy

  • Born in May 1917
  • Was born into a wealthy Boston (Massachusetts) Irish family
  • Served in the NAvy in WW2
  • Entered politics in 1946 when he became a Congressmam for Boston
  • Following in his father's footsteps - his father had been a politician
  • Was a Democrat 
  • Between 1952-1960 he was Senator for Massachusetts
  • Elected President in 1960, he narrowly beat off the Republican candidate Richard Nixon
  • Became President in January 1961
  • Assassinated in Dallas, Texas by Lee Harvey Oswald in November 1963
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Kennedy's attitudes to Civil Rights

Before he became President

In his election campaign, foreign policy (Cold War) and domestic economy was the focus. He spoke of a 'new frontier' - ambitious plans to revitalise and revolutionise American society.

  • Thought discriminatory 'Jim Crow' laws to be wrong
  • Offered total support for the Brown decision
  • Supported the recent Greensboro sit ins 
  • Called for tougher laws to protect black voting rights
  • Wanted federal action to curb inner-city blight 

He didn't publicise these pledges during the election campaign. As senator Kennedy had previously voted to limit the impact of Eisenhower's 1957 Civil Rights Bill. He selected the powerful Lyndon B. Johnson as his vice President as a bid for Southern support. 

Flirted for all important black votes when he rang Martin Luther King's wife in October 1960 offering sympathy for her husband who had been sentenced to four month's hard labour in Georgia for violating a probation order. This phone call was much published against the wishes of Robert Kennedy who thought it would alienate Southern White voters.

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Freedom Rides 1961+

Why did the Freedom Rides take place? 

  • To try and get Supreme Court decisions regarding segregation on buses enforced.
  • To get whites to create a crisis so the government would have to act. 

Who organised them and who took part?

  • CORE
  • Interracial, both blacks and whites took place in the freedom rides.
  • The FBI were involved to protect the freedom riders but sometimes they knew information about future attacks and didn't do anything about it.

What happened on the Freedom Rides?

  • A bus was attacked by a mob, 12 people were hospitalised and the bus was destroyed. This was just outside Anniston in Alabama.
  • Another bus in Birmingham was attacked and a white freedom rider took the majority of the beating.
  • No protection as they approached Montgomery even though the Governor promised it.
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Freedom Rides 1961+

How did the Kennedy administration respond and react to the Freedom Rides?

  • Kennedy rang down to bus depots and demanded they found some drivers.
  • He sent a special assister to Alabama to try and get Governor Patterson to act otherwise Federal Law will have to get involved. 

Why were the Freedom Rides successful?

  • Freedom Riders were ready to accept beatings and even deaths in order to achieve desegregation.
  • At one point, both State and Federal law were protecting them.

Why were there limitations to the success of the Freedom Riders?

  • They were taken straight to jail when they arrived in Mississippi.
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Albany 1961-1962

November 1961 SNCC organised students from Albany State College, Georgia, in sit-ins in Albany bus station which had ignored the Interstate Commerce Commissions orders to desegregate. Hundreds of Freedom Riders were arrested. In response blacks boycotted white businesses but the city authorities still refused to desegregate. King and campaigners staged a protest about segregation. King was jailed because they refused to disperse when ordered to. 

The local police Chief was tactically shrewd and knew how to prevent violence from breaking out. He prevented white demonstrators from being violent, he told the police to arrest gently, he promised to discuss desegregation questions later.

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Albany 1961-1962

Why was there a campaign in Albany?

  • Albany had been on the route for one of the Freedom Rides.
  • Freedom Riders were arrested there in 1961.
  • In protest at their arrest the SNCC had started a sit-in at Albany bus station in support of the 1960 Boyton vs Virginia Supreme Court decision.
  • This was backed up by further rallies and protest meetings.
  • The local people were spirited and there was a good strength of feeling amongst the black community.

What happened?

  • Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy (SCLC) were invited to speak in Albany by King's old school friend William Anderson.
  • The next day, KIng and the other campaigners staged a protest about segregation. 
  • They were ordered to disperse by the local police and, when they refused, were arrested and fined.
  • King, to draw national attention to the whole issue, refused to pay the fine and failed.
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Albany 1961-1962 - achievements and failures.

What was achieved?

  • The black community lost a lot of it's fear of ***********
  • The entire black community had been mobilised
  • SNCC's 'jail not bait' strategy could fill the jail with protesters
  • National attention had been gained 
  • King learned it was unwise for SCLC to intervene in an area without a strong SCLC presence and that it was probably more effective to focus upon one particular aspect of segregation.
  • Because blacks had little political power, it was unwise to concentrate upon negotiations with the white authorities, it would make more sense to boycott businesses so businessmen would advocate negotiations. 
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Albany 1961-1962 - achievements and failures.

What were the failures?

  • Some black violence achieved bad publicity.
  • NAACP, SNCC and SCLC failed to cooperate. 
  • King was criticised by some blacks for indecision over black devisions and by others for choosing a fine rather than remaining in Albany jail for Christmas like promised.
  • The campaign failed to create a situation where the government felt obliged to act.
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Albany - Why did things go wrong?

  • There were tensions between the SNCC and SCLC - The SNCC had started the protest and the SCLC had waded in to take control over it. This caused resentment. SNCC felt that while King was helpful, his fleeting visits to Albany meant that a 'head of steam' could not be created. SCLC felt SNCC was 'over its head'. 
  • Before his arrest, King was flitting in and out of Albany when it suited him - Agreements made by him petered out as he left Albany after one had been made. He was also criticised by some blacks for indecision over black divisions. 
  • There was some black violence in some of the protests - This black violence achieved bad publicity. 
  • King was quickly release from jail - He was criticised by some blacks for choosing a fine rather than remaining in jail as he had promised. 
  • President Kennedy was not concerned about the campaign - This lack of concern meant that the governmant were not forced into action.
  • The actions of police chief Laurie Pritchett - Pritchett's tactics effectively ensured that the protest could not be successful. 
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Birmingham, Alabama 1963

What did the SNCC initially organise?

Starting in early April 1963, the SCLC organised sit in demonstrations demanding an end to segregation in the town. They also wanted an end to discrimination in employment and organised boycotts of shops that refused to serve black people.

How did King initially make miscalculations and how did he give the impression of mass support?

He admitted that there was tremendous resistance and the SCLC had to use demonstrators in areas where there was lots of blacks to give the impression of mass support.

How did Bull Connor initially help the cause of the SCLC?

He initially kept calm and did not react, instead he arrested marchers and banned marches and protests. The SCLC were not getting the response that they needed to attract mass media attention. 

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Birmingham, Alabama 1963

Why was King arrested and what did he do whilst he was in jail?

King was arrested because he defied an injunction and marched as he knew his arrest would gain national attention. He was released because the letter that he wrote whilst in jail made Coretta ring the President who got him released. 

Who did the SCLC recruit to deal with the difficulty of mobilising demonstrators?

The SCLC enlisted black school children, some as young as six. This was done to attract the media's attention. It was a controversial move due to the obvious moral issues behind the choice.

How did Connor react and what was the result of the reaction?

His high pressure hoses tore clothes off students backs and the jails had been filled. A leading SCLC member thanked Connor for his violent actions, without there would be no publicity.

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Birmingham, Alabama 1963

What agreements were reached? What was not agreed?

  • The Birmingham Senior Citizens Committee (a committee of business leaders within Birmingam) negotiated a settlement in return to an end to the protests. 
  • Birmingham's stores were to be desegreagted and discrimination against black people was to be ended.
  • However, desegregation was not to be immediate but in stages and equal opportunities in employment would be difficult to monitor.
  • Desegregation of school and public areas was not mentioned.

How did Connor's KKK friends sabotage the agreement made to improve the lives of Birmingam blacks? What did blacks do in response to this?

They bombed King and his brother and state troopers, commanded by Connor, left just before the bombing. Blacks rioted and Bobby Kennedy feared that this could trigger national violence. Local black leaders were urged by King not to boycott and instead to take the case to Court.

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Why Birmingham?

The Albany campaign was a failure

  • There were tensions between the SNCC and SCLC.
  • Before his arrest King was flitting in and out of Albany when it suited him.
  • There was black violence in some of the protests.
  • King was quickly released from jail.
  • No concern from the President. 

Birmingham was a large town by Southern standards with a large black population

Racial segregation was extremely rigid, the baseball team was forced to drop out of the league so that mixing of black and whites could be avoided. White division looked promising in Birmingham.

The SNCC and NAACP were relatively inactive in Birmingham

The local SNCC leader was affiliated to SCLC and King's brother was a pastor. 

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Why Birmingham?

White businessmen felt racism held the city back

Economically doing a stand here would affect white businesses in Birmingham therefore forcing them into action. 

Segregation was rife - whites had banned the selling of a book which featured black and white rabbits!

This would attract media attention and help to gain progress in Birmingham.

The police chief 'Bull' Connor, was a known segregationist with a hot temper

This meant that what happened in Albany would not be repeated because he was too short tempered to use clever tactics.

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How far was the Birmingham campaign a success?


  • Achieved desegregation in shops - importance of blacks econimically.
  • King actually led the movement.
  • The SCLC correctly predicted how Connor would react therefore attracting media attention.
  • SCLC showed America that Southern segregation was unpleasant. 
  • Persuades Kennedy to push for the 1964 Civil Rights Bill.
  • Extra donations were given to the SCLC which could fund more campaigns.
  • Inspires protests in the South in summer of 1963.


  • Some criticised King as he was called a hypocrite and violent.
  • Criticised for using children.
  • Still a lot of segregation and discrimination in the workplace which was hard to monitor.
  • Federal government still slow to react.
  • Failure to recruit enough demonstrators which highlights lack of black community work.
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March on Washington 1963

Why Washington DC?

Its the capital and home of the President. The Congress and Supreme Court are based there. It had also been the focus of an earlier march in 1941 and 1957.

Why 1963?

  • Followed on from success of Birmingham.
  • 100th anniversary of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclomation that had promised the abolition of slavery once the Civil War had been won. 

Who was involved?

  • Churches
  • Black and white people
  • Mainly middle class
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March on Washington 1963

How did the Kennedy's react to it?

There was initial concern that it would directly attack them. Once they recieved reassurance they agreed to support it. 

How many people turned out?

250 000, the organisers had hoped for 100 000 at best.

Who had a dream that day?

Martin Luther King's speech made a powerful appeal to white Americans with references to the Bible and to the Declaration of Independance. 

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How successful was the March?


  • The march was well organised, well supported and recieved world wide media attention.
  • Showed Civil Rights organisations could work together.
  • Demonstrated the levels of white support.
  • Climate of opinion made hange possible.
  • South resistance increased. In September 1963 four black children in Sunday school were killed by a bomb attack on a baptist Church. 

Not very

  • Most of the primary aims of the march such as housing, integrated education and widespread employment were not achieved. 
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Founded by Ella Baker as a result of the Greensboro sit-ins of 1960. They were formed to help black and white Americans to campaign for civil rights.

Where did the SNCC campaign?

  • Albany - sit-ins - 1961
  • Mississippi - Meredith March - 1966
  • Mississippi - campaign - 1961-1964
  • Alabama - Selma to Montgomery March - 1965
  • All over - freedom rides
  • Grassroot struggles across the South 1961-1964
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Kennedy's attitudes to Civil Rights

After he became President

  • Was in no rush for dramatic change 
  • Saw demands for freedom now as just as irresponsible as calls for segregation forever
  • The Kennedy's saw the struggle against racism as a conundrum to be managed, not a cause to be championed.
  • All a matter of time, there were other more pressing matters at hand - only in the struggle against Communism would Kennedy and the United States 'pay any price'
  • Believed in using only the minimal amount of force, did not envisage the use of Presidential or federal intervention and did so with reluctance.
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Was Kennedy a good President for Civil Rights?


  • He intervened and directly improved the desegregation of public facilities after Birmingham.
  • Proposed the 1963 Civil Rights Bill in the hope of improving Civil Rigths.
  • Genuinley interested in equality.
  • Founded the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 
  • Supported the desegregation of bus terminals and seating.


  • Sent his brother to do all the dirty work for him.
  • Opposition from Republicans.
  • No back bone - easily swayed by others.
  • Didn't want an imrovement if it meant political unrest was caused.
  • Too cautious not to cause termoil within the community.
  • EEOC was unsuccessful.
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