Saturday, August 26, 2006

Calling Uhura to the Bridge

The issue of civil rights for African Americans had been steadily growing in prominence, punctuated by episodes of conflict and violence, since the mid 1950s. In 1963 police violence against non-violent demonstrators and white rioting and firebombing in black neighborhoods of Birmingham, Alabama, pushed the civil rights struggle to a new level. Then Alabama Governor George Wallace announced he would personally bar the admission of the first two black students to be enrolled at the University of Alabama under federal court order.

The drama, which turned out to be little more than a ceremony of defiance for cameras, played the day after JFK’s American University speech. Kennedy spontaneously decided to speak to the nation that night. With little in the way of prepared text, he delivered a speech on civil rights as perfectly timed and morally clear as he had the day before on world peace. Equality is a moral issue “as old as the scriptures and…as clear as the American Constitution, he said “In short, every American ought to have the right to be treated as he would wish to be treated…” The day before he had urged empathy for the Soviet people; now he asked white Americans to imagine themselves in the place of black Americans. “Who among us then would be content with the counsels of patience and delay?”
He announced the voting rights legislation that would become landmark law under Lyndon Johnson. He had also advocated new help and new recognition for the poor in America (motivated in part by the new book, The Other America, that detailed the shocking poverty most Americans didn’t see, written by Michael Harrington, one of the chief demonstrators outside the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles that nominated him for President.) This became the core of Johnson’s War on Poverty; other Kennedy initiatives inspired elements of LBJ’s Great Society.

On August 28, between a quarter of a million and half a million people created the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was an overwhelmingly peaceful event, the largest demonstration in the nation’s history. U.S. television networks preempted much of their programming to broadcast it, and thanks to the new Telstar communication satellite, it was one of the first events to be televised live around the world.

Instead of “As the World Turns” and “Art Linkletter’s House Party,” U.S. viewers saw this massive crowd gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and they heard Bob Dylan sing “When the Ship Comes In,” as well as songs by Miriam Anderson, Peter, Paul & Mary, Odetta and others. They heard white labor leader Walter Reuther speak; rabbis, preachers and priests pray. And they saw and hear Martin Luther King make his famous “I have a dream” address.

Kennedy met with leaders of the march in the White House. Kennedy knew (as LBJ did later) that such forthright and principled support for civil rights would doom the Democratic party in the previously solid South, perhaps for a long time. But the march signaled the possibility of a new political coalition that meant this step towards the future might be sustained. Kennedy described himself privately as “an idealist without illusions.”

Though he accepted the possibility that his stand on the test ban treaty might lead to his defeat for reelection, Kennedy believed the opposition was not as strong among voters as rising conservatives claimed. By September, it was clear that he was right. Overwhelming public sentiment in favor of the treaty led to Senate confirmation.

As Kennedy traveled across America in late fall, he spoke often about the issue of peace, to increasingly enthusiastic response. This was the last image, and the lasting image of Kennedy, held by many Americans and certainly many people around the world.

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