"We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and a people. It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is a time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives. It is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say this a problem of one section of the country or another, or deplore the facts that we face. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all. Those who do nothing are inviting shame, as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right, as well as reality.."— John F. Kennedy, Address to the Nation, June 1963

About the Exhibit

JFK with Civil Rights Leaders During President Kennedy's administration, one of the most explosive domestic issues was the cause of civil rights.  African Americans were demonstrating against social and economic injustices, and against segregation. While he received strong, perhaps decisive support from black voters, at the outset of his administration JFK deferred civil rights legislation to avoid alienating southern Democrats, whose votes were essential to the passage of his overall domestic program. He relied instead on the use of executive authority to implement a number of progressive measures. Most civil rights leaders, however, urged a more aggressive approach.

Influenced by these leaders, Kennedy used the power of his office to send troops to southern states to enforce the racial integration of schools such as the University of Mississippi in 1962 and the University of Alabama in 1963.

President Kennedy addresses AMVETS by telephone from the Oval Office, 23 August 1962Finally, on June 11, 1963, Kennedy committed the full powers of his office to the cause of equal rights. He gave an audiotelevised address from the oval office on the problem of racial discrimination, calling it "a moral crisis" and submitted comprehensive civil rights legislation to the Congress. When civil rights leaders announced plans for a March on Washington that summer, Kennedy initially opposed the idea, fearing a large demonstration in the capital could turn violent and jeopardize the civil rights bill. After a meeting with the leaders, he was persuaded that the march was "in the great tradition" of American protest. The main leaders of the march were A. Philip Randolph (who had initiated the idea), the heads of the five key civil rights organizations, plus longtime activist Bayard Rustin. Each one played an important part in America’s struggle for civil rights. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., addressed the crowds with his rousing "I Have a Dream" speech which strengthened public support for civil rights.

Exhibit Highlights

This exhibit contains video of civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, the enrollment of the first black students at the University of Alabama, President Kennedy’s June 1963 address to the nation on civil rights, as well as footage of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his “I Have a Dream Speech” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
On display is a selection of personal items which President Kennedy displayed in the White House Oval Office as well as a replica of President Kennedy's desk, the HMS Resolute desk.