The Menlo Roundtable

The Greatest Story Seldom Told

In a televised address to the American public, President John F. Kennedy announced the initiation of broad civil rights legislation on June 11, 1963.

Arguably, this was the turning point of the Civil Rights Movement. Kennedy’s proposed legislation would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It outlawed discrimination in employment and public accommodations on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, and national origin. It also included voting reform as well as provisions that would accelerate the pace of school desegregation. Enactment of this legislation paved the way for the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, which provided most African Americans in the South an actual right to vote for the first time. Initiation of sweeping federal civil rights legislation would have been unimaginable just three years earlier to the student leaders who independently initiated lunch counter sit-in campaigns in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Nashville, Tennessee. Members of the King-centric historiographical school such as Adam Fairclough paint Martin Luther King Jr. as the most important figure in shifting the Kennedy administration’s stance on civil rights. Historians such as Clayborne Carson, on the other hand, argue that students were the primary force pushing the movement forward in the early Sixties. A close analysis of the events that caused President John F. Kennedy and his brother and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to move from ambivalence on Civil Rights to champions of the legislation that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964 demonstrates that student leaders played a more important role than even Carson has contended.