President John F. Kennedy and Civil Rights

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President John F. Kennedy and Civil Rights
By Fabio Rodrigues da Silva Reis

John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States of America, was a President focused on foreign policy during the nuclear age. One of his most remarkable characteristics was his desire to promote peace worldwide and neutralize the existing wars of his day. Aware of how much was at stake and passionately trying to find peace, he acted carefully and prudently during his time in office. On January 20th, 1961, he took the office, after defeating Republican candidate Richard Nixon. To fully understand Kennedy’s legacy, it is important not to overlook the great work he did with helping African Americans achieve Civil Rights.

During the Kennedy administration, the President faced a remarkable number of historically relevant domestic and world events, including the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the building of the Berlin Wall, the Space Race, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the African American Civil Rights Movement, as well as the early stages of the Vietnam War. Times were tense and a very fragile American society was being tested in new and frightening ways. While optimism pressed the country onward, the country was divided in profound ways, and many Americans were fearful of the future.

Though not always sure of the way forward, President Kennedy expressed sensitivity to civil rights issues, being progressive ahead of his time. He stood by those who protested and marched in favor of equality for all. He proposed and promoted what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing discrimination in public places. The African American population breathed deeply and commemorated such attitude by the President, admiring him as much as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

As President, Kennedy was a massive catalyst for civil rights legislation, challenging long-held discriminatory laws and advocating social change. His political vision outlined the framework for what became the Great Society of the late 1960s, an ambitious program of social reform aimed at the elimination of poverty and racial injustice. With optimism, John F. Kennedy opened the decade with a spirit of unselfishness and service summarized in the memorable phrase from his inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country. “ Who was John Fitzgerald Kennedy?

John Fitzgerald “Jack” Kennedy (nicknamed Jack because another John existed in the Kennedy family) came from a rich and privileged Irish-American Roman Catholic family. Even so, the Kennedy family left Boston, the city they are most famously associated with, and moved to New York. In Boston, the Kennedy family experienced arm’s length acceptance by upper class families who perceived their Irish background as vulgar, their Catholic faith as “different” and the family’s wealth as lacking ‘class’. The Kennedys hoped that the more cosmopolitan New York would allow them greater access to high society. This introduction to bigotry and discrimination most likely gave Kennedy an empathetic understanding of what life was like for African Americans in terms of being “the other.” Early in life, Kennedy suffered from multiple kinds of illnesses. He was very gaunt and had problems with his back. In September 1941, he was medically disqualified by the Army for his chronic lower back problems, and subsequently joined the U.S. Navy. In his military career, Kennedy was known as a courageous man and received decorations in World War II that included the American Defense Service Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with three bronze service stars, and the World War II Victory Medal, in addition to the Purple Heart. His father, Joseph Kennedy, was his inspiration and mentor. At first, Joseph believed his elder son Joe Kennedy would be a perfect fit as a President, but later on, he turned his eyes to “Jack”. Joseph contributed immensely to Jack’s campaign,...
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