At the same time as Jack struggled to handle Soviet influence abroad, a revolution of epic proportions was taking place in his very own country: the civil rights movement. Throughout JFK's presidency, civil rights advocates struggled to effect change in the racially segregated South, where whites controlled state governments and denied African-Americans basic rights. Although Kennedy opposed segregation and had shown some support for the civil rights movement (most notably through a 1960 phone call to Coretta Scott King), he did not make civil rights a major priority of his presidency until his last months as commander-in-chief. JFK, who had had few personal interactions with blacks in his life, was reluctant to address civil rights concerns for fear of exposing American racism to the international community, alienating southern voters in his quest for re-election, and straining relations with southern Democrats in Congress (and thus making it harder to pass legislation). The president, who had developed a passion for international relations early in his career, wanted to focus on what he saw as more pressing foreign policy issues relating to Russia, Cuba, and the Cold War.
However, civil rights concerns could not be ignored. Kennedy first experienced the challenges of leading a socially turbulent nation in May of 1961, when a group of black and white civil rights activists known as the Freedom Riders boarded buses and attempted to break segregation codes by traveling together through violently racist regions of the South. When the Freedom Riders reached Montgomery, Alabama, they were attacked by a white mob; after fleeing to the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, the mob followed, threatening to storm the building. At this point, President Kennedy, following the advice of his brother Bobby, now serving as Attorney General, ordered a group of U.S. Marshals to protect the Freedom Riders. But Kennedy was unwilling to take any other federal action, immediately handing over power to Alabama Governor John Patterson. Following the incident, Martin Luther King, Jr. asked the president if he would agree to meet the Freedom Riders in Washington as a symbol of solidarity. Jack refused the request.
President Kennedy demonstrated a similar reluctance to undertake major civil rights action during a 1962 conflict at Ole Miss (the University of Mississippi). On 25 September, James Meredith, an African American man, attempted to register as a student at Ole Miss, the only remaining all-white public university in the nation. Mississippi's notoriously racist governor, Ross Barnett, blocked Meredith's efforts, and tensions in the college town of Oxford, Mississippi grew explosive. Seeking to avoid the kind of bad publicity that had resulted from President Eisenhower's decision to send federal troops to integrate a Little Rock high school in 1957, Kennedy wanted to exercise as little presidential power as possible. Jack and Bobby tried to engineer a behind-the-scenes negotiation with Governor Barnett, but were unable to reach any solid agreement. In a televised address on the evening of 30 September, Jack assured the nation that James Meredith was safely living on the Ole Miss campus; almost simultaneously, violence was erupting in Oxford. Jack was forced to call in the National Guard, something he had longed to avoid. At four in the morning, as the rioting in Mississippi intensified, Jack ordered 16,000 military policemen to restore peace on the Ole Miss campus. The military policemen were ultimately successful in their efforts, but not before the rioters had wreaked considerable havoc: two people were killed, over 200 federal marshals and soldiers were injured, and 200 people were arrested.32 Luckily for Kennedy, the public was so focused on the drama of the crisis that he was not questioned or blamed for mishandling the situation.
The turning point in Kennedy's attitude toward civil rights came in the summer of 1963, when another Southern governor—Alabama's George Wallace—attempted to prevent James Hood and Vivian Malone, two African American students, from enrolling at the University of Alabama. Wallace, who in his inaugural speech famously declared, "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," stood at the door of the University's main building in an effort to physically prevent Malone and Hood from entering the campus. Again, Kennedy was compelled to send in the National Guard. That same day, 11 June 1963, the president delivered a televised speech in which he discussed the recent incidents of racially motivated violence and outlined a general proposal for a Civil Rights Bill. Although privately Kennedy had summed up his desire for the bill to encompass "the minimum we can ask for and the maximum we can stand behind"33—not exactly a progressive stance—it was the first decisive action that firmly and finally aligned him with the Civil Rights Movement.