Masaryk University

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Masaryk University

Faculty of Arts

Department of English

and American Studies

English Language and Literature

Michaela Lupačová

John F. Kennedy and His Role in the Civil Rights Movement

Master’s Diploma Thesis

Supervisor: doc. PhDr. Tomáš Pospíšil, Dr.


I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,

using only the sources listed in the bibliography.


I would like to thank my supervisor, doc. PhDr. Tomáš Pospíšil, Dr.

for his help and guidance throughout my work.


Introduction 6

1 Part I: Introduction to the Topic 8

1.1 African Americans in the USA 8

1.2 The Civil Rights Movement 10

1.3 John Fitzgerald Kennedy 11

1.3.1 Family Background 12

2 Part II: Early Political Career 14

2.1 Campaign for Congress 14

2.2 Years in Congress 16

2.3 Campaign for Senate 17

2.4 Years in the Senate (1953 – 1960) 20

2.4.1 Brown v. Board of Education 21

2.4.2 Situation in the Democratic Party 22

2.4.3 The Civil Rights Act of 1957 24

2.4.4 Little Rock Crisis 26

2.4.5 Convention of Young Democrats in Jackson, Mississippi 27

3 Part III: Presidential Campaign 28

3.1 Early Campaigning 28

3.2 Kennedy Team 29

3.3 Religion 30

3.4 Wisconsin Primary 31

3.5 The Issue of Civil Rights in the Campaign 32

3.6 West Virginia Primary 33

3.7 Foreign and Domestic Affairs During Kennedy’s Campaign 33

3.8 Sit-in Movements 35

3.9 National Convention in Los Angeles 37

3.10 After the Convention 38

3.11 Phone Call to Coretta King 39

3.12 Televised Debates 42

3.13 National Conference on Constitutional Rights and American Freedom 44

3.14 Election Results 45

4 PART IV: Presidential Office 48

4.1 First Months in the Office 48

4.2 Discrimination against African Diplomats 50

4.3 Voting Rights 51

4.4 Freedom Rides 53

4.5 Albany Movement 58

4.6 Integrating the University of Mississippi 62

4.7 Birmingham 68

4.8 Integrating the University of Alabama 72

4.9 Kennedy’s Civil Rights Bill 74

4.10 The March on Washington 75

Conclusion 78

Bibliography 84


Numerous books have been written about Kennedy’s political, as well as personal life, about his great achievements and his flaws. John F. Kennedy, who has become a myth, has been fascinating people of several generations. His political career was developing during the fifties and at the beginning of the sixties, which are regarded as the most remarkable decades of the twentieth century. It was the time of social and political upheaval – new movements emerged and the traditional values were questioned. The Cold War and Vietnam War were fought, Berlin Wall was constructed and the world faced the threat of nuclear war. Apart from these challenges in foreign affairs, Kennedy was also confronted with domestic issues during his career, particularly with the civil rights issue during his presidency. Racial inequality became a very controversial topic in the USA. The civil rights organizations intensified their effort to fight segregation and to achieve full constitutional rights for African Americans. Stern confirms that “civil rights and race relations were the most passionate, obstinate and irrational issue in American history and politics” (“Eisenhower and Kennedy” 4).

Kennedy’s character with regard to civil rights has been discussed by numerous scholars and writers. While some see Kennedy as a key figure in the struggle for racial equality, who contributed significantly to the integration of African Americans into the American society, others criticize his performance for lack of action and they see his contributions as mere political calculations. There are arguments supporting both views.

In my diploma thesis I am going to analyze the role of John F. Kennedy in the Civil Rights Movement. Did Kennedy play such significant role as his supporters claim? Was his contribution to the racial problem so substantial or was it merely motivated by his political needs? The thesis is divided into four parts.

In the first part, I am going to introduce the topic of civil rights, the roots of racial inequality in the USA. I will briefly describe the development of the Civil Rights Movement and I will provide background information about John Kennedy, his family and his early life. In the second part of my thesis I am going to focus on Kennedy’s early political career and his approach to the problem of civil rights during his years in the House of Representatives and in the Senate. I will focus on his early political campaigns and his voting record in the Congress.

The third part is going to deal with Kennedy’s presidential campaign. I am going to analyze his speeches and acts regarding civil rights, particularly his telephone call to Mrs. King which is believed to have contributed significantly to his victory. In the fourth part I am going to examine Kennedy’s record on civil rights during his years in office. I am going to outline President’s relation to racial injustice and civil rights issues and its development. I am going to discuss individual events which occurred during Kennedy’s presidency and analyze Kennedy’s role in them. The aim of this thesis is to find out whether John Kennedy contributed to racial equality in the USA, how significant his contributions were, and what were the motives for his acts.

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