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Digital History ID 3327


The eruption of violence in Birmingham and elsewhere finally forced the Kennedy administration to introduce legislation to guarantee black civil rights. Twice before, in 1957 and 1960, the federal government had adopted weak civil rights acts designed to provide federal protection for black voting rights. Now, Kennedy responded to the racial violence by proposing a new, stronger civil rights bill that required the desegregation of public facilities, outlawed discrimination in employment and voting, and allowed the attorney general to initiate school desegregation suits.

Kennedy's record on civil rights inspired little confidence. He had voted against the 1957 Civil Rights Act, and in the 1960 campaign, many black leaders, including Jackie Robinson, backed Richard Nixon even though Kennedy worked hard to court the black vote by promising new civil rights legislation and declaring that he would end housing discrimination with a "stroke of the pen." A few weeks before the 1960 election, Kennedy broadened his black support by helping to secure the release of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from an Atlanta jail, where he had been imprisoned for leading an anti-segregation demonstration.

Once in office, however, Kennedy moved slowly on civil rights issues because he feared alienating white Southern Democrats, and because he had no real commitment to the cause. In his inaugural address and first State of the Union Address, he barely mentioned civil rights. Although Kennedy's administration filed 28 suits to protect black voting rights (compared to 10 suits filed during the Eisenhower years), it was not until November 1963, that Kennedy took steps to end housing discrimination with a "stroke of a pen"--after he had received hundreds of pens from frustrated civil rights leaders.

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