Category Archives: Public Figure-John F. Kennedy

The March On Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963: an account of the 72-minute post-march meeting of 8 civil rights leaders with President Kennedy at the White House.

Sensing a national breakthrough for civil rights, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. joined civil rights leaders to plan a March on Washington for Wednesday, August 28, 1963. The great march filled the VIP section at the Lincoln Memorial and the National Mall to past the Washington Monument, a distance of almost one mile. The March on Washington is remembered for King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the massive crowd’s hopeful jubilation. The meeting with President Kennedy was more than a polite courtesy call to the White House–it helped coordinate political strategy for the movement that would have concrete ramifications for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 following Kennedy’s death.

By John P. Walsh

President John F. Kennedy watched the march—and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech—from the White House on television. Both Kennedy and King were young men—King was 34 years old, Kennedy was 46 years old. Though mature beyond their years, each American proffered green oak in some ways—Kennedy was especially more personally sensitive than his “cool” public persona belied him to be. King, too, was mostly uncomfortable that day with the particular attention, from the media and others, that he was receiving for his remarks at the Lincoln Memorial. As the civil rights leaders filed into the Cabinet Room at the White House the first thing Kennedy said when he took King’s hand was “I have a dream…” reiterating the line that immediately impressed the president when he heard it a short time earlier live on TV. King deflected the president’s compliment and immediately asked him what he thought of United Automobile Workers president Walter Reuther’s excellent speech which included criticizing Kennedy for defending freedom around the world but not always at home. Kennedy said: “Oh, I’ve heard [Walter] plenty of times.”

Civil Rights leaders in this group photograph at the Lincoln Memorial followed-up the March on Washington with a visit to the White House to meet President Kennedy. Seated left to right: National Urban League executive director Whitney Young (1921-1971); chairman of the Demonstration Committee Cleveland Robinson (1914-1995); labor union leader A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979); Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968); National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) leader Roy Wilkins (1901-1981).

Standing left to right: director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice Matthew Ahmann (1931-2001); Rabbi Joachim Prinz (1902-1998); Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader John Lewis (1940-2020); Protestant minister Eugene Carson Blake (1906-1985); Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) leader Floyd McKissick (1922-1991); labor union leader Walter Reuther (1907-1970).

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking at the March on Washington from the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. Following the successful march for jobs and freedom, civil rights leaders went to the White House to visit with President Kennedy and pushed measures to strengthen the Civil Rights bill.

King and Kennedy hardly talked more during the visit, though when they did it led to an outcome for action. Rather, Kennedy and Roy Wilkins talked at length about strengthening the civil rights bill following the success of that day’s completely peaceful march. King moved down the line away from the president and near to then-23-year-old John Lewis, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

One section to the bill these activists wanted the president to add was a ban on employment exclusion based on race. Around that White House photo op in August 1963, among other things, they cited to the president the coming of increasing automation in the job market that would depress the availability of jobs. In that macro socio-economic light, they also discussed the plight of the inner city. They told Kennedy that Black teenagers were dropping out of school in epidemic numbers. The president was told by A. Philip Randolph that this entire generation of young blacks “had no faith” in whites, black leadership, government or God. American society meant nothing to them but despair.

During the visit, Kennedy was also lobbied to re-insert into the act a section that was stripped in 1957 giving authority to the Attorney General to investigate and initiate lawsuits on behalf of blatant civil rights infringements.

President Kennedy responded that with Robert Kennedy, his Attorney General, he had looked into the joblessness and school drop-out rate among Blacks in New York City and Chicago. On August 28, 1963, Kennedy encouraged the civil rights leaders to have the Black community do more. “It seems to me, ” the president said, “with all the influence that all you gentleman have in the Negro community that we could emphasize…educating [your]children, on making them study, making them stay in school and all the rest.”

In regard to the proposed add-ons to the civil rights bill, the existing legislation was already on the brink of defeat in a Democrat-controlled Senate and too close to call in a Democrat-controlled House. Wilkins countered that the Speaker of the House assured him that a stronger civil rights bill could pass the House and work to pressure the Senate to act. If the president would lead a crusade to win approval from the voters for these civil rights measures he could go over the heads of the Congress who obstructed passage of the bill.

Kennedy replied frankly to the leaders that civil rights will and must be a bipartisan effort. For a Democrat president to lead a crusade would allow the Republicans to support civil rights but in the South blame the Democrats exclusively for it. Kennedy assured the civil rights leaders that “treacherous” political games were presently being played in the legislature by Republicans and Democrats on the bill. Kennedy was countered by Walter Reuther. “Look, you can’t escape this problem,“ the white labor leader said, “and there are two ways of resolving it—either by reason or riots. But now the civil war is not gonna be fought at Gettysburg, it’s gonna be fought in your backyard, in your plant, where your kids are growing up.” Reuther told JFK he didn’t much like the young president’s “seminar” style of governing where “you call a big meeting…and nothing happens.” Reuther, as he told JFK, preferred Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson’s approach where you “jawbone” it until you “get difficult things done.”

King stayed silent for most of the back and forth debate. When King finally spoke he asked JFK that if the sitting president led a crusade then perhaps his predecessor, Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower, might get involved, and thus provide the bipartisan push. Kennedy snapped at King: “No, it won’t.” In reply, King made a knowing joke: “Doesn’t [President Eisenhower] happen to be in the other denomination?” Ike’s personal pastor, Rev. Eugene Blake, was in the Cabinet Room because Blake was the march’s only white speaker. One reason was that Rev. Blake, a powerful force and no pushover, had been arrested in a civil rights demonstration in Baltimore and had gone to jail. Just hours earlier, Rev. Blake orated: “We come late, late we come, in the reconciling and repentant spirit.” The Protestant clergyman embraced the march’s agenda of civil and economic rights for African Americans as well as an end to racism though he rejected words like “revolution” and “the masses” used by some civil rights activists as alien dogma.

At that day’s White House visit, Blake intimated to Kennedy that clearly Ike could be approached about civil rights. The president quickly pivoted and urged Ike’s pastor to visit the former president at his home in Gettysburg—“and include a Catholic and maybe a businessman or two”—to discover any political role Ike might be willing to take on for the civil rights bill. Then pointing to Reuther, Kennedy advised, “And leave Walter in the background.” Amid chuckles, Kennedy then left the room of civil rights leaders and assured them he would keep in touch in the months ahead.

SOURCES:

TAYLOR BRANCH, PARTING THE WATERS AMERICA IN THE KING YEARS 1954-1963. NEW YORK: SIMON & SCHUSTER, 1988.

DAVID GARROW, BEARING THE CROSS: MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., AND THE SOUTHERN LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE, WILLIAM MORROW AND COMPANY, 1986.

On August 28, 1963 about 250,000 peaceful protesters descended on Washington, D.C. for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march was one of the largest political rallies for human rights in United States history.

PHOTO CREDITS:

Hundreds of thousands descended on Washington, D.C.’s, Lincoln Memorial Aug. 28, 1963. Public Domain/U.S. Government Photo.

Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. (Leaders of the march posing in front of the statue of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln Memorial.) by Rowland Scherman (b. 1937), for the U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service. Public Domain/U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking from the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington by Rowland Scherman (b. 1937), for the U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service. Public Domain/U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. (Aerial view of Washington Monument showing marchers.) U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service. Public Domain/U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Leaders of the march leading marchers down the street. U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service. Public Domain/U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

On Trump’s North Korea Crisis (2017) and Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis (1962).

Like JFK in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Trump in 2017 must use the military and moral strength of the U.S. to seek and find a conclusion so that North Korea changes course on their nuclear weapons peacefully.

By John P. Walsh, dated August 9, 2017

In addition to Twitter, the media tells us that U.S. President Donald J. Trump loves to watch a lot of TV. I hope he has seen this film: Virtual JFK (2008). “Does it matter,” the film’s narrator states, “who is president on issues of war and peace? Can a president make a decisive difference in matters of war and peace? Can a president decisively lead his country into war or keep his country out of war? Or are the forces that drive nations into conflict far more impersonal (and) out of the control of any human being, even a president?”

In 2014 nine nations around the world—including North Korea—have around 16,300 nuclear weapons. Estimates are that North Korea’s arsenal today may be about 20 warheads or higher. In descending order of warhead amounts, the other nuclear states are Russia (8,000 warheads), the U.S.A. (7,300), France (300), China (250), the UK (225), India and Pakistan (about 100 each) and Israel (80). According to the National Security Archive, the last tactical nuclear weapons left Cuba in December 1962. For a rogue state such as North Korea to possess nuclear weapons is dangerous and unpredictable to the region and world.

Like JFK in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the U.S. must use its military and moral strength to seek and find a conclusion so that North Korea changes course on their nuclear weapons peacefully. Exactly what that change should look like is an important debate not explored here, but the U.S. must NOT and NEVER start or provoke a nuclear war to achieve it. Kennedy prepared for nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but always carefully did not pull the trigger. There can be no close analogy between Cuba in 1962 and North Korea in 2017. Cuba is 90 miles off American shores and North Korea about 6,500 miles from the Continental U.S. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, those were clearly Russian nukes. The Cold War by the early 1960’s was a well-worn competitive geopolitical game that hadn’t yet completely played out. The Russians built a wall in Berlin in 1961; Kennedy quarantined Cuba in 1962. In 2017 what is the multiplicity of sources Trump can hold accountable for the North Korean weapons deployment in addition to the rogue regime? China? Russia? Iran? If Pyongyang is today as remote and obscure as the Kremlin was in Kennedy’s time, today’s political and military equations are even more tangled and complicated.

Any calculations for war must include those who may or will get killed – and how many. Is American “hyper” power any good if its allies are casualties on a massive scale? No nuclear exchange must result with a hermit kingdom dictator who is not a friend of the U.S. or its allies in the region – especially if war may incalculably spread. If the U.S. has allies in the true meaning of the word then an attack on them by North Korea (or China or Russia) is equal to an attack on the homeland – otherwise what’s the point of the U.S. having allies at all? We must protect our allies in the region to the highest degree so to defend and preserve our esteemed alliances. In this dangerous politico-military crisis there are ramifications with severe strong risk for the U.S. as a global power and markedly in that part of the world. North Korea must somehow stand down for there to be success from the perspective of the U.S and its allies.

Similar to the Cuban Missile Crisis that endured for 13 straight days—the Korean crisis has gone on arguably for over 60 years — patience and cool-headed leadership joined to a perfect calibration of carrot and stick (preferring the carrot) should serve as worthwhile qualities so to craft a necessarily peaceful and successful outcome. “Because of the ingenuity of science and man’s own inability to control his relations one with another,” said JFK in 1961 in Virtual JFK, “we happen to live in the most dangerous time in the history of the human race.” The film states that experienced military advisers believed that whenever Americans committed military force – they won the conflict. But as frequent and strong pressure by many advisers is put on Kennedy to commit the U.S. to a war, the president time and again chose to avoid both conventional and nuclear war.  It may not be remembered today but after the failure of the Bay of Pigs in 1961, there was talk of John Kennedy’s impeachment for incompetence. Many in his own Democratic party wouldn’t support him because they had convinced themselves he wasn’t a serious political leader.

In 2017 the defeat of 33-year-old Kim Jong-un’s nuclear threat short of war will not be simply a victory for the status quo but a step forward in terms of American leadership in that part of the world. An actual war, unless it could be completely nonnuclear, contained, and successful – which is improbable – cannot be in any civilized people’s self-interest. Of course if Kim started a nuclear war, which is hopefully very remote but possible, war will come, as Trump said plainly on August 8, 2017, with “fire and fury.” In October 1962 Kennedy’s speech to the nation on the Cuban Missile Crisis included this “fiery” rhetoric: “Third: It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” JFK concluded with the overall purpose of his actions: “Our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right – not peace at the expense of freedom, but both peace and freedom, here in this hemisphere, and we hope, around the world. God willing, that goal will be achieved.” In 2017 we may look for a resolution to the North Korea crisis where history repeats itself.

All through the Cold War Kennedy looked into the face of strategic MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) without blinking and then chose to evoke the better angels of our nature. At the United Nations in his first year as president (September 25, 1961) Kennedy exhorted the world’s representatives: “Together we shall save our planet – or together we shall perish in its flames. Save it we can.  Save it we must. Then shall we earn the eternal thanks of mankind and, as peacemakers, the eternal blessing of God.” President Trump would do well to aspire to the same.

NOTES:

Nine nuclear nations – http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/nine-nations-have-nuclear-weapons-here-is-how-many-each-country-has-a6827916.html

about 20 warheads – http://www.express.co.uk/news/world/791436/north-korea-nuclear-weapons-kim-jong-un-how-many

Last Cuba warheads removed – http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB449/

Iran and North Korea – http://thediplomat.com/2016/04/the-iran-north-korea-connection/

fire and fury – https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/09/world/asia/north-korea-trump-threat-fire-and-fury.html?_r=0

United Nations speech – https://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Research-Aids/JFK-Speeches/United-Nations_19610925.aspx