“One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free."  

With those words on June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy expressed his unambiguous support of the civil rights movement and an empathetic understanding of the daily lives of black Americans suffering under segregation. It was a breathtaking moment — and it had taken him a long time to get here.  

The speech marked a pivotal point in his evolution on racial justice. He’d won the presidency, cementing his narrow lead with the votes of African-Americans putting him over the top. Black Americans wanted to believe in the man who spoke of “letting the oppressed go free” in his inaugural address.

But President Kennedy was not prepared for the Freedom Riders — black and white activists protesting segregation by riding side by side on interstate buses. Five months into his administration, an upset President Kennedy called the riders “unpatriotic” and described the situation to his inner circle as “this g**dam civil rights mess.” While the brutality of the attacks on the riders — bus bombings and near death beatings — shocked him, but he was still not ready to declare himself on the side of the marchers.

Kennedy engaged in a push and pull with civil rights leaders for the first two years of his presidency, as racial incidents erupted across the Deep South. In April1963, Americans and the president were horrified by the footage of Birmingham police directing dogs to attack thousands of school children and using city water hoses to knock them off their feet. Not long after Governor George Wallace, backed by state troopers, literally stood in the doorway to prevent black students Vivian Monroe and James Hood from entering the University of Alabama.

That night President Kennedy delivered his strongest and most definitive public statement about civil rights, as he declared, “The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.”

President Kennedy went on to call for civil rights legislation. However, concerned about inciting more violence, he opposed the planned March on Washington. But on August 28th, 250,000 marched to the Lincoln Memorial in a peaceful gathering capped by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s closing speech. President Kennedy was inspired, as the crowd was, by King’s poetic description of his dream for a just America. Afterward, the President greeted King at the White House saying, “I have a dream, too.”

He didn’t live to see civil rights legislation signed into law, but President Kennedy’s civil rights legacy was forever cemented in history and in the hearts of African-Americans. In many households, his picture was hanging on the wall, part of a treasured triptych, next to Martin Luther King and Jesus.

I am a humble beneficiary of the gritty commitment and blood of the many who laid it on the line for civil rights. In honor and tribute to their sacrifices, I thankfully acknowledge President John F Kennedy’s singular impact on this nation’s civil rights legacy. And I remember that his landmark speech included words that seem eerily appropriate for today.

“We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and as a people. It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is a time to act in the Congress, in your state and local legislative bodies and, above all, in all of our daily lives.”

Happy 100th Birthday, President Kennedy.