Study Guide

John F. Kennedy in I Have a Dream

By Martin Luther King, Jr.

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John F. Kennedy

Leading in Crisis

John F. Kennedy is mainly known for having the second-coolest Boston accent of all time (falling just behind Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting).

Oh yeah—but he's also known for being president of the United States when the Civil Rights Movement really started rolling.

Publically, Kennedy was assertive in his support of African American rights. During his 1960 presidential campaign against Richard Nixon, he argued for creating more educational and economic opportunities for African Americans, and talked about the inherent racial inequality in American society. (Source)

He even voiced his support for MLK after he was arrested and imprisoned in the Birmingham Jail. So you couldn't say he was exactly a shrinking violet when it came to social justice.

However, after he became president, his priorities started to shift. When his responsibilities included waging the Cold War, Kennedy's administration became wary of Civil Rights leaders, including MLK. (Yet another reason the Cold War was a pretty messed-up period of history.) (Source)

The Fear of Red Dawn Becoming Reality

The big issue was Communism. From his early career as a journalist onward, Kennedy wasn't a big fan of Communism. During his famous Inaugural Address, he promised the American people that free Republican democracy would prevail worldwide against the Soviet Union. And, during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, tensions between Communist Russia and the U.S. almost led to a freaking nuclear war. (Source)

The threat of impending annihilation would make us believe in the bogeyman too.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. and A. Philip Randolph were organizing the Civil Rights Movement of the '60s, Kennedy's administration became concerned that they had socialist and Communist sympathizers in their ranks. Which was sort of true, especially for Randolph. After all, pro-labor politics and civil rights often went hand-in-hand. The economic inequality between rich and poor was especially evident when it came to different races. African Americans were more likely to have a bone to pick with mega-capitalists.

Fearing revolts, Kennedy and his administration encouraged African American leaders to call off the March on Washington (the civil rights leaders ignored the plea). The FBI, led by Kennedy's biological bro Bobby Kennedy and his brother-from-another-mother J. Edgar Hoover, wiretapped MLK's phones and spied on him and other African American leaders. (Source)

Kennedy redeemed his wishy-washiness in the end with his famous Civil Rights Address in June of 1963. Influenced by Dr. King's leadership, the Prez pleaded with Congress to reject patience and step up its game with an anti-discrimination law. (Source)

The Civil Rights Act that Kennedy promised had to wait for the next president, Lyndon Johnson. Kennedy got momentum behind the bill, but he was assassinated in 1963, before it passed.

Tragedy ensured that Kennedy was only around for the prelude to significant change.

It was a traumatizing time for the nation, but his sweet accent and inspirational speeches live on.

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