The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library releases secret Oval Office recordings of President John F. Kennedy deploring the use of force to quell civil rights marches in Birmingham, Alabama.
Secret Audiotapes of JFK Decrying Civil Rights Violations in Birmingham
BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor:
The struggle for civil rights broke out into the open and was seen around the world during the Administration of President John F. Kennedy. Today the Kennedy Presidential Library released an audiotape of a conversation in the Oval Office, one of many he secretly recorded. But on this day in May of 1963, the President was angry about the situation in Birmingham, Alabama, and an Associated Press photo on the front page of that day's New York Times.
Former President JOHN F. KENNEDY: (From audiotape) There is no Federal law that we could pass to do anything about that picture in today's Times. Well, there isn't. I mean, what law can you pass to do anything about police power in the community of Birmingham? There's nothing we can do. There's no Federal law to support us. No Federal statute. There's no Federal law we can pass. Now, the fact of the matter is, Birmingham is in the worst shape than any city in the United States, and it's been that way for a year and a half. And they have done nothing for the Negroes in that community, so it's an intolerable situation. That there's no argument about. I'm not saying anybody ought to be patient. And this may be the only way these things come to a head. We're going to end up with the National Guard in there and all sorts of trouble.
WILLIAMS: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., arrested twice in Birmingham, spoke out about the violence that tore apart a city, and made the world sit up and take notice.
Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING Jr.: (From file footage) We cannot continue to have Birmingham, Alabamas. The image of the United States cannot stand it. The shape of the world today does not afford us the luxury of such an anemic democracy.
WILLIAMS: At the meeting, Kennedy told the group he knew his Administration could do more and promised to do it.
Pres. KENNEDY: (From audiotape) Well, now, wait. Let me just say, on the civil rights, we have done not enough, because the situation is so desperate. But we have shoved and pushed, and the Department of Justice has--there is nothing that my brother's given more time to. I quite agree, if I were a Negro, I'd be awfully sore.
WILLIAMS: The President did not limit his criticism to Birmingham. He went on to point out the hypocrisy of a Washington social club whose members, including journalists, did not allow African Americans. In the President's eyes, they were just as guilty as some in the Deep South.
Pres. KENNEDY: (From audiotape) I had some newspaperman in here telling me about `Isn't that outrageous in Birmingham?' And I said, `Why are you over there eating at the Metropolitan Club every day? And you talk about Birmingham. You're up there at the Metropolitan Club.' Some of our most distinguished commentators--every day, lunch. And they probably won't even let Negro ambassadors in.
WILLIAMS: That was May of 1963. The President was killed that fall, and in the summer of 1964, having staked his own Presidency on it, Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Standing by his side in the Oval Office was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr..
Editor's Note: In his civil rights address of June 11, 1963, delivered to the nation over radio and television, President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) announced that he soon would ask Congress to enact landmark civil rights legislation. In his speech, JFK responds to the threats of violence and obstruction on the University of Alabama campus following desegregation attempts
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