Historians have noted that Kennedy was a reluctant champion of civil rights for both political and practical reasons. Politically he understood the likelihood of losing southern constituents of the Democratic Party especially if he pushed too forcefully on racial equality.
And from a practical perspective, Kennedy believed that other national issues–the economy and the political and ideological conflicts with global communism–took precedence over America’s festering racial issues.
Listening to the speech now, JFK’s moral courage on racial issues as well as the heavy lifting still required to attain true racial equality in this nation become poignantly apparent. President Kennedy argued that “ … it ought to be possible for American citizens of any color to register to vote in a free election without interference …”
This particular assertion, along with the activism, blood, sweat, and tears of the civil rights movement, laid the groundwork for the diverse demographics of our modern Democratic party.
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James Braxton Peterson is the Director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University. He is also the founder of Hip Hop Scholars LLC, an association of hip-hop generation scholars dedicated to researching and developing the cultural and educational potential of hip-hop, urban and youth cultures. You can follow him on Twitter @DrJamesPeterson