The Story: Civil Rights Opposition

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Not until 1960, when the whole sit-in started, did you see a total community, every segment of the black community, get involved. I think today what is happening since 1955 and particularly since 1960, black people see their involvements an extension--see their involvement in the political movement as an extension of their involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.

John Lewis

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At the end of President Eisenhower’s two terms in office, his Vice President, Richard Nixon, was nominated to be the Republican candidate for the 1960 presidential election. New Englander John F. Kennedy (JFK) won the Democratic nomination and chose Texas Senator Lyndon B. Johnson as his running mate. Despite several controversies surrounding the creation of this partnership, Johnson-’s southern roots and skills as a campaigner helped the Democrats win several southern states that had previously expressed skepticism towards Kennedy. Kennedy and Johnson were narrowly victorious in what was one of the closest presidential elections in American history.

"You see a total community"
- John Lewis

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Prior to his presidency, Kennedy’s civil rights record was not a strong one. For example, as a Massachusetts Senator (1953-1960) he voted against Eisenhower’s 1957 Civil Rights Act. Additionally, Kennedy is accused of having been reluctant to directly address civil rights issues until late in his presidency. His domestic actions were focused more broadly on health care and poverty issues rather than being specific to civil rights. In place of taking on new legislation, JFK and his brother, US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, demanded the enforcement of laws already in place that had been overwhelmingly ignored by local officials throughout the South. Their efforts were not insignificant, but seem a mere drop in the bucket compared to the storm that was brewing. Nonetheless, it is difficult to lay blame on Kennedy’s domestic policy when taking into consideration the attention required of him by international conflicts such as the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the war in Vietnam. Despite President Kennedy’s reluctance to take on civil rights, his election brought an air of new hope to the movement which in turn inspired many activists to increase their efforts.