‘Kennedy failed to live up to his promises regarding Civil Rights.’ Assess the validity of this view.


  • During the 1960 Election campaign, Kennedy courted the African-American vote which may have indicated a presidency which would deliver huge change in the advancement of Civil Rights.
  • However, his win was narrow and therefore was perhaps limited by a fear of alienating the Dixiecrat faction of his party.
  • Kennedy presided over some of the most active years of the Civil Rights Movement and the legislation which ultimately resulted was a landmark, reaching further than any other president had done before.

Arguments against the statement…

  • Black appointments: Kennedy made more black appointments than any other previous president. This included 5 federal judges including Thurgood Marshall. He also appointed 40 African-Americans to top positions in the White House including Associate White House Press Secretary.
  • Upholding previous civil rights legislation: Following the Freedom Rides in 1961, Bobby Kennedy demanded that the Interstate Commerce Commission enforce their own 1955 ruling on the desegregation of interstate buses. Bobby Kennedy and the Justice Department brought 57 suits against violations of black voting rights, beating the 6 brought in Eisenhower’s administration.
  • Ending discrimination in employment on federal contracts and in housing: Executive Orders 10925 and 11063 facilitated the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the abolition of racial covenants respectively. This theoretically meant that African-Americans had greater economic opportunity allowing them to purchase a house in the suburbs and lift themselves out of poverty. This did however have flaws.

Arguments for the statement…

  • Weaknesses of the Executive Orders: Kennedy continued to appoint white segregationist judges in the south which meant that in practice, African-Americans did not have equality before the law. Furthermore, the real issue which Kennedy wanted to address was ‘poverty’. The 1962 11063 Executive Order made little difference in practice as the real issue in need of addressing was the poor quality housing in inner city areas and ending discrimination in private housing.
  • Introduction of the Civil Rights Bill: Although this covered a broader range of liberties for African-Americans, it was struggling at the committee stage at the time of Kennedy’s death and it is therefore unlikely that the bill would have been passed in its entirety had Johnson not been able to capitalise on Kennedy’s legacy. Furthermore, this was the only legislation introduced during Kennedy’s administration regarding rights for African Americans.
  • Government Action was reactive: In the face of national and international media pressure, Kennedy was quick to step in in support of Civil Rights activists. Events at Albany, where Laurie Pritchett was keen to ensure that there was no fuss, no government action was taken as there was no threat of unfavourable media attention. This made government support inconsistent and insincere.


  • Kennedy has often been accused of delivering far less than promised in his New Frontier.
  • The reality for Kennedy was that legislation was likely to split his party and we will never know if he would have eventually been willing to take that risk, like Johnson did after him.
  • While he was not opposed to the advancement of Civil Rights, Kennedy was aware of how the Civil Rights Movement was rapidly developing, with the emergence of the SNCC and a peak in campaign activity and that is a potential reason for a lack of legislation as he knew that too much change too quickly would spark unrest.
  • However, he made promises to the African-American population and was especially grateful to their vote for his victory. He did not deliver legislation that was so demanded by his supporters.
  • However, we cannot fully argue that Kennedy failed as his term was cut short.

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