Investigating Kennedy's Address on Civil Rights

Topic: President Kennedy's June 11, 1963 Radio and Television Report to the American People on Civil Rights; Civil Rights, Civic Action

Grades: 4-8                

Time Required: 1-2 class periods

Download this lesson, including handouts, as a pdf.

This lesson is adapted from a longer lesson, The President Takes a Stand: Kennedy’s Report to the American People on Civil Rights

Overview
In this lesson, students read, listen to, and summarize an excerpt of President Kennedy’s June 11th speech on civil rights. They reflect on its resonance today and create images of what racial justice could look like in the future.

Goals/Rationale
Kennedy’s Radio and Television Report to the American People on Civil Rights is historically significant for several reasons. It was Kennedy’s strongest public statement to the country (and the rest of the world) on civil rights. Also, historians consider it a groundbreaking speech because Kennedy framed racial injustice as a moral or ethical issue.  He challenged Americans to ask themselves, how do we want to be treated? What is the right way to behave towards others in a country founded on equality? The speech was a call to action; Kennedy challenged individuals to act, to treat each other with respect in their daily lives. Moreover, he formally announced his plans to introduce an omnibus civil rights bill to Congress. 

The goal of the lesson is to learn about racial injustice in the past, make connections to today, and envision a better future.

Essential Question
What is racial justice and how do we address it?

Objectives
Students will:

  • read, discuss, and listen to President Kennedy’s historic speech on racial injustice and civil rights
  • summarize an excerpt of the speech and determine its main ideas.
  • make connections to racial injustice today.
  • create an image that reflects a world that is more racially just.

Connections to Curricula (Standards)
National History Standards
Standard 1: Historical Comprehension
Standard 3: Historical Analysis and Interpretation
US History Era 9
Standard 4: The struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties. 

Common Core State Standards: Anchor Standards for Grades K-12
English Language Arts, Reading Standard 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
English Language Arts, Reading Standard 2:  Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
English Language Arts Standards, History/Social Studies, Grades 6 – 8, Standard 1: Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.
English Language Arts Standards, History/Social Studies, Grades 6 – 8, Standard 6: Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author’s point of view or purpose.

MA Standards for History and Social Science Practice
1. Demonstrate civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions.MA Standards for History and Social Science Practice

Massachusetts History and Social Studies Curriculum Frameworks
5.T5.8 Research and analyze one of the people, organizations, events, or legislative acts from the 20th century that contributed to expanding civil rights of African Americans, women, and others in the United States.
Grade 8 Topic 4: The rights and responsibilities of citizens

Materials

Historical Background

After narrowly defeating Richard M. Nixon in the 1960 election, John F. Kennedy was cautious in his approach to civil rights. He was reluctant to lose southern support for legislation on many fronts by pushing too hard on civil rights legislation. By the spring of 1963, Kennedy's attention became increasingly focused on civil rights. The 1963 Birmingham Campaign in Alabama made national news with images of children attacked by dogs and blasted with high pressure fire hoses. The growing number and size of civil rights demonstrations, and the violent backlash from segregationists compelled the president to take direct action and speed up introduction of civil rights legislation.

On June 11, 1963, Kennedy took a bold stand. Earlier that day, Alabama Governor George Wallace had attempted to block two African-American students from entering the University of Alabama. The president federalized the Alabama National Guard and the governor finally stepped aside, allowing the students to enter the University. That evening, the president delivered an historic message: segregation and other forms of racial injustice must end and he would introduce legislation to work toward that goal.

In his speech, the president responded to the threats of violence and obstruction of justice on the University of Alabama campus following desegregation attempts, explaining that the United States was founded on the principle that all men are created equal and thus, all American students are entitled to attend public educational institutions, regardless of race. He addressed discrimination in education, public accommodations, and voting rights.  The president declared that “it ought to be possible, in short, for every American to enjoy the privileges of being American without regard to his race or his color.”  The president made it clear that the issue of civil rights affected the country as a whole; it was not limited to one city or one region. 

The president asked Congress to enact legislation protecting all Americans’ voting rights, legal standing, educational opportunities, and access to public facilities, but recognized that legislation alone could not solve the country's problems concerning race relations.  

He stated, “It is time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives.”

Procedure 

Part 1: The President Addresses Racial Equality and Injustice

Note: This lesson works well as part of a unit on civil rights so that students have been introduced to the historical context of that time.

Share key points from the Historical Background provided in this lesson plan:

  • Kennedy had been cautious about civil rights because it had been a very close election and he wanted to keep the support of as many people and legislators as possible.
  • Conflict over integration and civil rights had been escalating during the spring of 1963. In May, thousands of protesters in Birmingham, Alabama marched for equal rights and faced a fierce police response. Young people were arrested and jailed, police dogs frightened and harmed demonstrators, and many protesters were injured.  (For a visual image of the police response, see photographs from newspapers in the Project C section of microsite 1963: The Struggle for Equal Rights.)
  • On June 11, George Wallace, the governor of Alabama, tried to block two African American students from entering the University of Alabama.The president called in the National Guard and the governor stepped aside.  The president informed the country of the event in a speech on radio and television during which he explained why it was so important for all Americans to be treated fairly and have equal rights and privileges. He announced that he would be introducing a law that would end segregation in public places, require schools to become desegregated, and protect people’s right to vote.  (View a newsreel on the events of June 11, 1963 in The Showdown section of The Integration of the University of Alabama.)
  • Suggestion discussion questions:
  1. Why do you think President Kennedy chose to make a speech at this moment in time? 
  2. Why was it important for President Kennedy to take a stand? 
  3. How could he, as president, make a difference at that time?  What impact might his speech have?
  4. What arguments might he have used to convince the country that everyone should be treated equally under the law?  Record students’ ideas.

Part II: Summarizing the Speech and Identifying the Main Idea

Teaching note about the word “Negro” to share with students in preparation for reading the speech excerpt: Language is important and changes over time. Until about 1967, “Negro” was one of the acceptable words used by Americans of all races to identify black or African-American people.  When John F. Kennedy delivered his Report to the American People on Civil Rights on June 11, 1963, the word “Negro” was not thought of as a negative word by most people.  However, around 1967, some black leaders and thinkers criticized the word and believed it was important for Americans of African descent to choose their own way to describe themselves. They preferred the words “black” and then “Afro-American.”  Now we use “black,” “African-American,” or “a person of color” to describe Americans of African descent.

  1. Share a copy of the excerpt from Kennedy’s Radio and Television Report to the American People on Civil Rights with students.  Explain that they will have the opportunity to examine this historic speech, Kennedy’s strongest statement to the American people on civil rights.  At the time, the American people did not all agree about segregation and other issues related to race. Many Americans wanted to keep racial segregation, and others thought President Kennedy had not taken enough action to address racial injustice. Students will summarize the excerpt and identify  the main ideas of the text.
  2. Read the text to students and discuss their responses and questions.
  3. Play the video of the highlighted excerpt (it begins at 4:00 and ends at 7:00) and discuss additional questions.
  4. Have students work individually, in small groups, or as a whole class to complete the graphic organizer.  Guide students to consult the Glossary handout and dictionaries to make sure they understand the vocabulary. In addition to summarizing the text, students should identify the main ideas of the excerpt.

Part II:  Relating the Speech to Today

  1. Have students share their summaries and main idea. 
  2. Suggested discussion questions:
  • What arguments does Kennedy use to convince his audience that people of all races should have equal rights?
  • How does the text relate to today? What parts still feel true? What has changed?
  • What does racial justice look like? What changes do we need to make in our school, neighborhood, city or town, state, country, and world to work toward racial justice?

Assessment:

Have students select one of the changes (or add a new suggestion) that will help lead to racial justice, and then create an illustration with a caption.

Extensions:

Sharing the story

Compile students’ illustrations and quotes into a picture book.  Have them write an introduction and conclusion, providing historical information on the speech.  Have them present information on the speech and perform a reading of the book to another class or at a gathering for families.