The Week Civil Rights Took Hold Of The White House

“I want to say a few words about civil rights,” Robert F. Kennedy said standing atop a chair in a crowded room at the Los Angeles Hotel Biltmore.

It was Monday morning, July 11, the first day of proceedings at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, and RFK was leading a meeting of twenty-five delegate wranglers and other staffers working to get the presidential nomination for his brother, Senator John F. Kennedy.

Among those present was the historian and Kennedy confidant Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. In his book A Thousand Days, he captured RFK comments on the party platform, which would come to be called The Rights of Man.

“We have the best civil rights plank the Democratic Party has ever had. I want you fellows to make it clear to your delegations that the Kennedy forces are unequivocally in favor of this plank and that we want it passed in the convention. Those of you who are dealing with southern delegations make it absolutely clear how we stand on civil rights. Don’t fuzz it up.”

This week marks fifty years since the two decisions that would end up institutionalizing the civil rights movement in American government. The Freedom Riders had not moved an inch, James Meredith had not yet applied to the University of Mississippi, and Selma’s Bloody Sunday was still five years off, but the inclusion of a maximum civil rights plank in the Democratic platform and the selection of Lyndon B. Johnson as vice president readied the federal action and legislation that would be necessary to respond to them.

As RFK gave his chair-top speech on civil rights, an aide who helped write the plank stood nearby, wondering if he should speak up. The plank’s authors’ had taken the language to the extreme as a means for bargaining. The plank set a 1963 deadline for every school in America to meet “at least first-step compliance” with the much-ignored Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision. It demanded federal action on employment, voting rights, the integration of public facilities. The plank was the “maximum” appeal for equality so that it would still be substantial after the Democrats’ powerful Southern bloc got a hold of it and whittled it down. But instead of negotiating for it, the Kennedys accepted every last word of it.

It remained RFK’s hope that southern delegates would “see other reasons why we are united as Democrats.” And surprisingly, the convention gave the candidate his civil rights plank without much of a fight, though southerners would uniformly denounce it throughout the fall. Florida Senator Spessard Holland said the plank would “make it frightfully impossible to carry ten states of the Southland.”

But the Democrats had not fractured the ‘Solid South’ yet, for a few days later, Lyndon Baines Johnson was selected as the vice presidential nominee.

Whether John Kennedy truly wanted LBJ is another matter. He had not spent much time dwelling on potential running mates and the Texan took a preliminary conversation and interpreted it as an offer. And try as they might, the Kennedys could not rescind it.

The selection elicited a giant groan from conventioneers’ hotel suites throughout Los Angeles. JFK had just staved off a last minute attempt to swing the nomination to liberal darling Adlai Stevenson. To turn around and pick a conservative like Johnson for the ticket made the nominee look insincere about taking the Democratic Party in a progressive direction.

But the decision had a mollifying effect on the South. The liberals had already won the strongest civil rights plank in history, and as Schlesinger wrote, the absence of a southerner on the ticket would increase the region’s sense of “self-pity, bitterness and futility.” Johnson had long been the South’s greatest hope for a national politician, but as he recalled Kennedy telling him, “as a southerner I could not be nominated.”

Johnson helped Kennedy keep enough southern states to be elected president. And through Kennedy’s selection of him, Johnson ascended to the presidency, which may have been impossible in his own right.

The Kennedy administration would follow through with much of its civil rights plank by enforcing court orders, filing injunctions against state obstructions of constitutional rights, and marshalling federal resources to fight Jim Crow. Johnson then became president and was the only man confident and capable enough to pass a truly meaningful Civil Rights Act in 1964 and 1965 Voting Rights Act through Congress.

Coupled together, the civil rights plank and the Kennedy-Johnson pact provided for the mandate and necessary cover to the civil rights movement in order to achieve significant victories at the federal level. “We have lost the South for a generation,” President Johnson predicted to an aide in the summer of 1964. Though they had kept it long enough to make a difference.