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Civil Rights of African Americans Essay


This essay will show how these two presidents tackled the problem of Civil rights of African Americans and it will demonstrate the extent of improvements and what remained the same. When one compares the extent of improvements which these two presidents make, the immediate reaction would be one praise towards President Kennedy because of his ultimate death while one would demonise President Johnson cause of Vietnam. This essay will show how little Kennedy actually accomplished as president but how much Johnson and the civil rights movement achieved thanks

To be able to compare and objectively see the extent to which these two presidents improved civil rights for African Americans, we must first ascertain what their goals were and if they accomplished them or not; establish the extent of what they did with president each of the surrounding circumstances.

In the early 1960S, the drive for voting rights became a central part of the major southern-based civil rights organizations’ strategy — the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), headed by Martin Luther King Jr., and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), led by Bob Moses, John Lewis and James Forman.

Argument for Kennedy

What did Kennedy do to advance the cause of civil rights?

1) He put pressure on federal government organisations to employ more African Americans. Any who were employed were usually in the lowest paid posts and in jobs that had little prospect of professional progress. The FBI only employed 48 African Americans out of a total of 13,649 and these 48 were nearly all chauffeurs. Kennedy did more than any president before him to have more African Americans appointed to federal government posts. In total, he appointed 40 to senior federal positions including five as federal judges

2) Kennedy appointed his brother (Robert) as Attorney General which put him at the head of the Justice Department. Their tactic was to use the law courts as a way of enforcing already passed civil rights legislation. The Justice Department brought 57 law suits against local officials for obstructing African Americans who wished to register their right to vote. Local officials from Louisiana were threatened with prison for contempt when they refused to hand over money to newly desegregated schools. Such a threat prompted others in Atlanta, Memphis and New Orleans to hand over finance without too many problems – few if any were willing to experience the American penal system which had a policy of punishment then as opposed to reforming prisoners.

3) Kennedy was very good at what would appear to be small gestures. In American football, the Washington Redskins were the last of the big teams to refuse to sign African Americans. Their stadium was federally funded and Kennedy ordered that they were no longer allowed to use the stadium and would have to find a new one. The team very quickly signed up African American players.

4) Kennedy created the CEEO (Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity). Its job was to ensure that all people employed with the federal government had equal employment opportunities; it also required all those firms that had contracts with the federal government to do the same if they were to win further federal contracts.

5) The 1963 March on Washington was initially opposed by Kennedy as he believed that any march during his presidency would indicate that the leaders of the civil rights campaign were critical of his stance on civil rights. Kennedy also felt that the march could antagonise Congress when it was in the process of discussing his civil rights bill. A march might have been viewed by Congress as external pressure being put on them. Kennedy eventually endorsed the march when it was agreed that the federal government could have an input into it. Malcolm X criticised King’s decision to allow this as he believed that Kennedy was attempting to take over and orchestrate the march. Malcolm X was to nick-name the march “The Farce on Washington”.

Argument against Kennedy

1) Kennedy had to tread a very fine line in the South. His popularity by September 1963 showed that his support had dropped to 44% in the South. It had been 60% in March 1963. At this time, the South was a traditional stronghold of the Democrats.

Was Kennedy a keen civil rights man?

2) In the immediate aftermath of his death, only praise was heaped on the murdered president. To do otherwise would have been considered highly unpatriotic. However, in recent years there has been a re-evaluation of Kennedy and what he did in his presidency. For a man who claimed that poor housing could be ended with the signing of the president’s name, Kennedy did nothing. His Department of Urban Affairs bill was rejected by Congress and eventually only a weak housing act was passed which applied only to future federal housing projects.

3) The CEEO was only concerned with those already employed (though it did encourage firms to employ African Americans) and it did nothing to actively get employment opportunities for African Americans. The CEEO was concerned with those in employment within the federal government not the unemployed.

4) Kennedy was also aware that southern Democrats were still powerful in the party and their wishes could not be totally ignored if the party was not to be split apart – or if Kennedy was not to get the party’s nomination for the 1964 election. However, there is no doubt that the violence that occurred in the South during his presidency horrified and angered him.

Argument for LBJ

1) Lyndon Baines Johnson has been credited with being one of the most important figures in the civil rights movement. Johnson does have some distracters who believe that he was merely an unprincipled politician who¬†used the civil rights issue when he realised the worth of the “Black Vote”. However Johnson himself claimed to be an idealist who dreamed of making America a “Great Society”. It was Johnson who put the presidential signature to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.


I recon that, it doesn’t actually matter if Kennedy was a genuine supporter of civil rights or not, as long as he was doing something to improve it. People tend to forget all other pressures that were on Kennedy at the same time as the civil rights crisis, such as the Cuban crisis which potentially threatened world peace. From my point of view that would become subsequently much more important than civil rights. However I do understand and take into account the view that civil rights was a serious problem, which definitely had to be addressed, especially when the united states were claiming that they were the perpetrators of peace and liberty. Considering JFK’s premature death, the general world situation, (Vietnam, Cuban Missile Crisis) I think that the extent of JFK’s civil rights achievements were limited.

While President Johnson was able to achieve remarkably a lot, especially when faced with the Vietnam War. One can argue that LBJ’s achievements, such as the passing of the civil rights bill is all thanks to JFK’s death; that he only promoted civil rights to boost his campaign to get to the top; the only reason he pursued the voting rights act was because faced with the Vietnam war, he had to boost moral at home. All this is partly true and has an effect that on what he was doing and had done but it wasn’t the main policy that he was following. LBJ had done what no other President before had ever, could ever or will ever achieve. He single handed managed to pass legislation trough congress that would change every single African Americans life for ever, but not only he also managed to keep at bay the feared white backlash, and the black power movement, considering that it could have escalated, and caused much greater damage. Over all the extent of legislation, appointments and gestures that President Lindon Johnson did was at a far greater depth and extent that any had done for the civil rights movement in the US.

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