Racial Tension in Birmingham
Kennedy emerged from the Cuban missile crisis as a well-regarded statesman. His popularity soared. A Gallup poll showed his approval rating at a remarkable 74 percent, 12 points higher than his prior approval rating. In November 1962, he made tax reform his biggest priority. This commitment was reflected in his 1963 State of the Union Address. “I am convinced that the enactment this year of tax reduction and tax reform overshadows all other domestic problems in this Congress. For we cannot for long lead the cause of peace and freedom, if we ever cease to set the pace here at home,” the president declared. Kennedy announced he would seek the passage of a bill giving $13.5 billion in tax cuts to individuals and corporations.
Focusing on Civil Rights
The State of the Union address contained only a passing reference to civil rights — “surely in this centennial year of Emancipation all those who are willing to vote should always be permitted” — but 1963 was the year in which Kennedy became a champion of the civil rights movement.
As Kennedy waited for the unlikely passage of his tax cut bill, he paid particular attention to civil rights. In November 1962, he had issued an Executive Order that integrated federal public housing, but he knew more was necessary. In addition, in February, he declared that the cause of equal rights for black citizens would continue until it was fulfilled, and he urged Congress to take action against discrimination. Specifically, he proposed legislation that would tackle discriminatory voter registration practices, he advised the implementation of the U.S. Supreme Court decision desegregating public schools, and he supported the passage of legislation barring discrimination in public places. In the end, though, Kennedy accomplished nothing. While he offered support for antisegregation laws, he neither proposed anything specific nor took a clear public stance against discrimination. This was especially apparent when he declined to follow the recommendation of the Civil Rights Commission to suspend federal funds to Mississippi, which had become one of the nation's most violent and egregious violators of civil rights.
“While we shall never weary in the defense of freedom, neither shall we ever abandon the pursuit of peace.”
Overall Kennedy believed that in comparison to prior administrations, he had achieved significant gains for blacks. Despite the administration's voting rights lawsuits, civil rights leaders were pressing him for much more. They wanted legislation to end discrimination in places of public accommodation. While the president may have failed to see the significance of his stance on civil rights, Bobby Kennedy knew exactly why it was important. He wanted to get an early start on preparing for the presidential election, and he realized that his brother's failure to do enough for civil rights could result in a loss.
The Birmingham Campaign
On April 3, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC initiated a campaign to desegregate stores and secure black employment in Birmingham, Alabama. Support from the black community was sparse, but it received a boost when King was arrested. His imprisonment once again drew the president into the civil rights fray. King received legal counsel, but his lawyers' access to him was severely limited. Coretta King requested Bobby Kennedy's assistance. Days later, the attorney general let her know he had arranged a phone call with her husband.
The president hoped that the Birmingham campaign would die out. King, on the other hand, had been released from jail and was doing everything he could to ensure that it continued. The lack of protestors was hurting the campaign, so King relented on a proposal to allow high school students to participate. On May 3, 1,000 students proceeded from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church toward downtown. Birmingham's police commissioner, Bull Connor, had set up a blockade of buses, police cars, fire engines, and K-9 units to impede their procession. When the students refused to stop, they were sprayed with fire hoses and attacked by police dogs. Photographers and television crews captured the brutal images. Kennedy was sickened by the image in the New York Times of a police dog attempting to bite a young bystander in the stomach.
Over the years, King had become a media-savvy civil rights leader. He wanted federal intervention, and he used the press to secure it. He appealed directly to Kennedy through the media, urging the president to take a stand against segregation. He baited the president by stating that the administration would have intervened if the protestors had been white.
When King was arrested, a letter from a group of white ministers was published in the Birmingham News. It criticized the protest and called for its termination. King responded in what is now famously known as his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Although he wrote it in jail and smuggled it out through his attorney, it was not published until mid-May.
Now more than ever, Kennedy had to respond. The photos had been published for the world to see and he feared that America's reputation would suffer if the violence continued. Burke Marshall and Joseph Dolan of the Justice Department went to Birmingham to help negotiate an agreement between activists and local businesses. Although Kennedy believed that the federal government was powerless in the situation — which, after all, involved no federal violations — he knew something had to be done. By May 8, negotiations had resulted in substantial progress. He announced in a news conference that protests were suspended while the negotiations continued. Kennedy believed he was doing all he could. Not everyone agreed with this assessment. When a paper the next day quoted Erwin Griswold, a member of the Civil Rights Commission, as saying that Kennedy had failed to use all of the power available to him, he was furious.
“When things started happening down here, Mr. Kennedy got disturbed. For Mr. Kennedy … is battling for the minds and the hearts of men in Asia and Africa … and they aren't going to respect the United States of America if she deprives men and women of the basic rights of life because of the color of their skin. Mr. Kennedy knows that.”
— Martin Luther King Jr., as quoted in President Kennedy: Profile of Power
Unbeknownst to Kennedy, Bull Connor was still at work. When a judge handed down an order for King's incarceration for his prior arrest, Connor happily took King into custody. King had a choice of serving jail time or paying a $2,500 bond. He chose to remain in jail. In response, civil rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth prepared to lead a protest. This threatened to dissolve any progress toward an agreement, so Bobby Kennedy immediately contacted Shuttlesworth and convinced him to wait. Within hours, A. G. Gatson, a wealthy black Birmingham businessman, paid King's bond.
On May 10, Birmingham's storeowners and black leaders reached an agreement. It included a provision to integrate drinking fountains and restrooms within thirty days and lunch counters within sixty days.
The Bombings in Birmingham
It appeared to Kennedy that Birmingham had been a victory. Just as he was settling in at Camp David, near midnight on May 11, bombs soared through the windows of King's empty room at the Gatson Motel and the Birmingham home of A. D. King, Martin Luther King Jr.'s brother. No one was hurt; earlier that day Martin Luther King had left Birmingham to return to his home in Atlanta. Black residents swarmed the streets, angry that the bombing of the motel occurred right under the noses of the Alabama state troopers. Police officers were assaulted with bricks and bottles. Kennedy awoke to the news early Sunday morning.
“This Government will do whatever must be done to preserve order, to protect the lives of its citizens, and to uphold the law of the land…. The Birmingham agreement was and is a fair and just accord. It recognized the fundamental right of all citizens to be accorded equal treatment and opportunity.”
Kennedy returned to Washington and met with advisors. He first wanted to know what King intended to do. Burke Marshall called King, who was preparing to return to Birmingham and settle the community. Although King was resolved to quiet the situation without troops, Kennedy did not want to take any chances. He federalized the Alabama National Guard and placed army troops near Birmingham on alert. Once again, Kennedy addressed the nation. In a five-minute speech that night, he urged an end to the violence and attested to his commitment to upholding the law.