June 11, 1963 – President Kennedy Addresses the Nation About Racism

On this date in history, Alabama Governor George Wallace stood in the doorway of a University of Alabama classroom building to prevent black students Vivian Malone and James A. Hood from attending class. (Following his election that January, Wallace famously stated in his inaugural address: “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”)

Governor Wallace at left, blocking the door

Governor Wallace at left, blocking the door

When Wallace refused to budge, President John F. Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard to enable the students to enter. Wallace chose to stand down rather than incite violence.

That night, Kennedy addressed the nation on television:

This Nation was founded … on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened. 

Today we are committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free. And when Americans are sent to Viet-Nam or West Berlin, we do not ask for whites only. It ought to be possible, therefore, for American students of any color to attend any public institution they select without having to be backed up by troops. 

…

We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.

One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.”

Thanks to the JFK Library Online, you can watch Kennedy deliver this speech here. You can also access the entire transcript here.

President John F. Kennedy is shown as he started his radio-television address to the nation on civil rights, June 11, 1963 in Washington.CHARLES GORRY/AP

President John F. Kennedy is shown as he started his radio-television address to the nation on civil rights, June 11, 1963 in Washington.CHARLES GORRY/AP

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