In the early 1960s, the fundamental prize sought by the civil rights movement was something that African Americans had never known: full legal equality.
When John F. Kennedy became president in 1961, African Americans throughout much of the South were denied the right to vote, barred from public facilities, subjected to insults and violence, and could not expect justice from the courts. In the North, black Americans also faced discrimination in housing, employment, education, and many other areas. But the civil rights movement had made important progress, and change was on the way.
Progress and Protests: 1954-1960
In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Many southern political leaders claimed the desegregation decision violated the rights of states to manage their systems of public education, and they responded with defiance, legal challenges, delays, or token compliance. As a result, school desegregation proceeded very slowly. By the end of the 1950s, less than 10 percent of black children in the South were attending integrated schools.
The pace of civil rights protests rose sharply in response to the Supreme Court's decision. Martin Luther King, Jr., led a boycott that ended segregated busing in Montgomery, Alabama. In 1957, National Guard troops under orders from President Dwight D. Eisenhower enforced the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. But, even after Little Rock, school integration was painfully slow, and segregation in general remained largely untouched.
In February 1960, four black college students sat down at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., and asked to be served. They were refused service, and they refused to leave their seats. Within days, more than 50 students had volunteered to continue the sit-in, and within weeks the movement had spread to other college campuses. Sit‑ins and other protests swept across the South in early 1960, touching more than 65 cities in 12 states. Roughly 50,000 young people joined the protests that year.
The Election of 1960
By the 1960 presidential campaign, civil rights had emerged as a crucial issue. Just a few weeks before the election, Martin Luther King, Jr., was arrested while leading a protest in Atlanta, Georgia. John Kennedy phoned Coretta Scott King to express his concern while a call from Robert Kennedy to the judge helped secure her husband's safe release. The Kennedys' personal intervention led to a public endorsement by Martin Luther King, Sr., the influential father of the civil rights leader.
Across the nation, more than 70 percent of African Americans voted for Kennedy, and these votes provided the winning edge in several key states. When President Kennedy took office in January 1961, African Americans had high expectations for the new administration.
But Kennedy's narrow election victory and small working margin in Congress left him cautious. He was reluctant to lose southern support for legislation on many fronts by pushing too hard on civil rights legislation. Instead, he appointed unprecedented numbers of African Americans to high-level positions in the administration and strengthened the Civil Rights Commission. He spoke out in favor of school desegregation, praised a number of cities for integrating their schools, and put Vice President Lyndon Johnson in charge of the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. Attorney General Robert Kennedy turned his attention to voting rights, initiating five times the number of suits brought during the previous administration.