Persuader-in-Chief: JFK's June 11, 1963 Address on Civil Rights

Download this lesson plan, including handouts, as a PDF.


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

Grade Level: 9-12

Subject Area: English Language Arts; US History after World War II; US Government

Time Required: 1-2 class periods

The president of the United States holds many roles in our nation, including Chief of State and Commander-in-Chief. In fulfilling these roles, a president's ability to reach out to the nation at a time of crisis is unmatched by any other governmental office. Through the years, presidents have used the "bully pulpit" (a term coined by President Theodore Roosevelt) to advocate for particular actions by the American people. In the 1950s and 1960s, the civil rights movement was gaining momentum, leading to significant turning points in our nation's history. In 1963, the Birmingham Campaign made front-page news and increased the urgency of the Kennedy administration to propose significant civil rights legislation. President Kennedy used the historic moment of the integration of the University of Alabama on June 11, 1963 to call civil rights a "moral issue" and present his civil rights agenda to the American people. In this lesson plan, students analyze the persuasiveness of this important speech.

Essential Question: Why is the president sometimes called the "Persuader-in-Chief"? What rhetorical methods enhance a persuasive speech?

Connections to Curricula (Standards)

National English Language Standards (NCTE)
1 - Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
3- Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
6 - Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and non-print texts.

National History Standards
US History, Era 9
Standard 3B: 
The student understands the "New Frontier" and the "Great Society."
Standard 4A: The student understands the "Second Reconstruction" and its advancement of civil rights.

Common Core State Standards
Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.
RH.9-10.2: Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.
RH.9-10.4: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary describing political, social, or economic aspects of history/social science.
W.9-10.2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
SL.9-10.3: Evaluate a speaker's point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, identifying any fallacious reasoning or exaggerated or distorted evidence.
SL.9-10.4: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and task.

Massachusetts History and Social Science Framework
USII.T4: Defending Democracy: The Cold War and civil rights at home
USII.T5: The United States and globalization

Massachusetts English Language Arts and Literacy Framework
Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.
RI.4-6, 9



Students will:

  • identify rhetorical methods.
  • examine the persuasive techniques in President Kennedy's June 11, 1963 Radio and Television Report to the American People on Civil Rights.
  • discuss the content of the speech.
  • evaluate the effectiveness of the speech.

Materials (included in downloadable PDF)

  1. Reading: "Persuasive Power in President Kennedy's June 11, 1963 Radio and Television Report to the American People on Civil Rights" (included with downloadable lesson plan)
  2. President Kennedy's June 11, 1963 Radio and Television Report to the American People on Civil Rights (Time: 13:27)
  3. "Modes of Persuasion" handout (included with downloadable lesson plan)
  4. "Modes of Persuasion" handout with answers (included with downloadable lesson plan)

Historical Background and Context

Although the election of 1960 between Kennedy and Nixon was very close, across the nation, more than 70 percent of African Americans voted for Kennedy. 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 in 1960 and the power of southern segregationist Democrats in Congress left him cautious about civil rights. Instead of pushing hard for civil rights legislation, he appointed unprecedented numbers of African Americans to high-level positions and signed Executive Orders that established the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity and prohibited discrimination in federally funded housing. On February 28, 1963, Kennedy submitted a Special Message to the Congress on Civil Rights in which he asked Congress to enact legislation that included limited civil rights measures such as strengthening voting rights laws and providing assistance for schools that were voluntarily desegregating.

By the spring of 1963, Kennedy's attention became increasingly focused on civil rights. His evolution to a greater involvement in civil rights was spurred, in large measure, by the growing number and size of civil rights demonstrations, and the violent backlash from segregationists. The 1963 Birmingham Campaign in Alabama made national news with images of children attacked by dogs and blasted with high pressure fire hoses. The Kennedy administration understood that strong civil rights legislation was necessary. 

When it became clear that Governor George Wallace would stand at the doorway of the University of Alabama's registration building on June 11th to prevent the registration of two African-American college students, President Kennedy realized that, with the nation focused on civil rights, the timing was right to speak to the nation about the need for legislation.

The decision to make a speech that evening was a sudden one. Although civil rights legislation had been in the works for several weeks, it was still in process. Theodore Sorensen, President Kennedy's Special Counsel and primary speechwriter, did not start a first draft of the speech until that afternoon. An hour before the speech, President Kennedy, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall and Sorensen were assembling and rewriting parts of the speech, and President Kennedy did not have a completed version when he sat down in front of the television camera at 8:00 p.m. He extemporized the concluding paragraphs of the speech.

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 also discussed how discrimination affects education, public safety, and international relations, noting that the country could not preach freedom internationally while ignoring it domestically. 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.  

In this lesson, students will consider the modes of persuasion used by President Kennedy in this historic speech and evaluate how the speech might have been strengthened. 


  1. For homework, have students read “Persuasive Power in President Kennedy's June 11, 1963 Radio and Television Report to the American People on Civil Rights” and answer the “Question to Consider.”
  2. In class, go over the homework and discuss the timing of the speech and its last-minute construction.
  3. If you have time, play the speech through once for students to watch, asking them to take notes on key points. If you do not have time, skip directly to Step 4.
  4. Provide students the "Modes of Persuasion" handout and review the terminology of rhetorical methods.
  5. Provide students with the transcript of the speech.
  6. Have students read through the text of Kennedy’s June 11th speech as you play the video. Ask them to mark up the transcript of the speech as they listen, noting, where they can, the methods of persuasion used.
  7. After they have listened to the speech, have students fill in the handout.
  8. Put students in groups to share their responses. Then, as a class, review the responses.
  9. Have students write a two-page paper answering the following questions: How does President Kennedy use Logos, Pathos and Ethos in his speech? What are the strengths of the speech? What are its weaknesses? Give specific examples.
  10. Have students read through some of the responses to the speech from the public, from the "Public Opinion" subchapter in the "Address to the American People on Civil Rights" section of the 1963: The Struggle for Civil Rights  microsite. Have them select one letter or telegram, and write a brief essay that describes in what ways the writer was persuaded or not persuaded by President Kennedy. Which portion(s) of President Kennedy’s speech most disturbs or encourages the writer? In sum, for this writer, did President Kennedy achieve his goals for the speech? Why? Why not?


Use the 2-page paper in Step 9 and the brief essay in Step 10, noted above, as an assessment for this lesson.


Have students read the memo to Associate Press Secretary Andrew Hatcher which provides a pro/con count of incoming mail about the speech. Then have them review all the letters written in response to the June 11th speech in the "Address to the American People on Civil Rights" section of the 1963: The Struggle for Civil Rights  microsite to determine if they detect any repetition in themes or patterns. Does the letter they selected (in Step 10) fit into any pattern? If so, how?