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President Kennedy historic address to the nation on civil rights bill in 1963 was written in little more than an hour. (pp. 708-709)


Book Excerpt
Audio Clip 17, pp. 708 - 709

That evening the president decided that he had to give a television address to the nation boldly announcing his plans to put forth his civil rights bill. The political operatives in the White House opposed the legislation, but just as in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the two Kennedy men stood stalwartly together. O'Brien and O'Donnell were not numb to the pain of black Americans, but they were paid in part because they could count, and they knew that the figures did not add up, not in Congress, not in the Democratic party, and not in the life of an American president who would soon be seeking reelection. Great leadership is often not good politics, however, and Kennedy decided to go ahead.

Kennedy began to prepare for this historic address only an hour before the 8:00 P.M. televised speech. Sorensen hurried into the Cabinet Room where the president sat with Bobby and Burke Marshall. The president quickly sketched his ideas, and Sorensen left to try to piece together a worthy speech in a few minutes. As Sorensen worked elsewhere, Kennedy worried that he would have to give the address extemporaneously. While he was jotting down a bunch of notes on what Bobby remembered as "the back of an envelope or something," Sorensen returned with the draft of a speech. Once again Sorensen had managed to channel himself into the president's psyche, and the speech had all the resonance and depth that would have taken anyone else hours to try to match. As good as it was, Bobby felt that Kennedy should end with a few unscripted remarks-and so he did.

Kennedy was not comfortable with the moralizing of priests and preachers, but there was a difference between moralizing and morality, and he grasped that this was his nation's great moral issue. A leader did not temporize and cut his words and meaning when he had prepared an important address in just one hour. "We are confronted primarily with a moral issues," he told Americans. "It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution." He saw the urgency of this matter, and the tragic direction in which it might be heading. "Redress is sought in the streets," he said, "in demonstrations, parades and protests which create tension and threaten violence and threaten lives."

The Freedom Riders had irked him with their moral absolutism and their refusal to compromise, and the civil rights activists worried him still. He feared where their uncompromising passions were leading America. He believed that "a great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change peaceful and constructive for all …those who act boldly are recognizing right as well as reality."

The president was above all a realist. Morality and the political imperative were one and the same, and he now proposed to the nation a civil rights bill that would help ensure that all Americans could go to hotels and restaurants and theaters and sit where they pleased, and that children could attend the schools that best served them, not facilities relegated to their race. He concluded in his own ad-libbed words, linked seamlessly to Sorensen's eloquent phrases, "We have a right to expect that the Negro community will be responsible, will uphold the law, but they have a right to expect that the law will be fair, that the Constitution will be color-blind."