The Freedom Rides
President Kennedy may have been reluctant to push ahead with civil rights legislation, but millions of African Americans would not wait. Eventually, the administration was compelled to act.
For decades, seating on buses in the South had been segregated, along with bus station waiting rooms, rest rooms, and restaurants. In May 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), led by James Farmer, organized integrated Freedom Rides to defy segregation in interstate transportation. Freedom riders were arrested in North Carolina and beaten in South Carolina. In Alabama, a bus was burned and the riders attacked with baseball bats and tire irons. Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent 400 federal marshals to protect the freedom riders and urged the Interstate Commerce Commission to order the desegregation of interstate travel.
James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss
In 1962, James H. Meredith Jr., an African American Air Force veteran, was denied admission to the University of Mississippi, known as "Ole Miss." Meredith attempted to register four times without success.
Long telephone conversations between the president, the attorney general, and Governor Ross Barnett failed to produce a solution. When federal marshals accompanied Meredith to campus in another attempt to register for classes, rioting erupted. Two people died and dozens were injured. President Kennedy mobilized the National Guard and sent federal troops to the campus. Meredith registered the next day and attended his first class, and segregation ended at the University of Mississippi.
See Integrating Old Miss, an interactive website that tells the story of James Meredith and the tumultuous events surrounding his historic admission to the University of Mississippi.
Martin Luther King Jr., Bull Connor, and the Demonstrations in Birmingham
In the spring of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth launched a campaign of mass protests in Birmingham, Alabama, which King called the most segregated city in America. Initially, the demonstrations had little impact. Then, on Good Friday, King was arrested and spent a week behind bars, where he wrote one of his most famous meditations on racial injustice and civil disobedience, "Letter from Birmingham Jail." Meanwhile, James Bevel, one of King's young lieutenants, summoned black youths to march in the streets at the beginning of May. Birmingham City Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor used police dogs and high-pressure fire hoses to put down the demonstrations. Nearly a thousand young people were arrested. The violence was broadcast on television to the nation and the world.
Invoking federal authority, President Kennedy sent several thousand troops to an Alabama air base, and his administration responded by speeding up the drafting of a comprehensive civil rights bill.
Integrating the University of Alabama
Governor George Wallace had vowed at his inauguration to defend "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever." In June 1963, he upheld his promise to "stand in the schoolhouse door" to prevent two black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama. To protect the students and secure their admission, President Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard. And on June 11, the president addressed the nation.
Kennedy defined the civil rights crisis as moral, as well as constitutional and legal. He announced that major civil rights legislation would be submitted to the Congress to guarantee equal access to public facilities, to end segregation in education, and to provide federal protection of the right to vote.