Excerpt: 'Kennedy, Johnson, and the Quest for Justice'

The Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 have been viewed as hollow pieces of legislation that achieved little in the struggle for justice. And while neither bill did much to improve the lives of African Americans, they did set a precedent and served as a crucible for policymakers like Humphrey, Kennedy, and Johnson. Johnson, especially, came to realize that a strong presidential push was necessary to achieve passage of meaningful civil rights legislation. Having managed both bills as majority leader in the Senate, Johnson would be prepared to take decisive action on civil rights when he became president in late 1963.

In the first months of 1960, as the sit-ins became increasingly widespread, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson fought a close contest to be their party's nominee for the White House. It was an odd primary campaign, with Johnson's remaining in Washington and Kennedy's entering only a handful of primaries. This was still an era when party leaders selected the nominee, and Johnson believed he had a good chance of securing enough party backing to win the nomination at the convention. But with more backing and more money, Kennedy would ultimately emerge on top, beating out Johnson, Humphrey, and Missouri's Stuart Symington.

In the debates over who would receive the nomination, the platform committee conducted its business out of the public spotlight, and the language it adopted on civil rights was surprisingly powerful. The Democrats' platform committed the party to removing all barriers to the right to vote, especially the poll tax and the literacy test. It called for aggressive action on school desegregation and promised that a Democratic president would end discrimination in the federal government and in federal housing. Coming to the convention, Kennedy had made a brief statement endorsing the sit-ins: "It is in the American tradition to stand up for one's rights," he told a group of African diplomats, "even if the new way to stand up for one's rights is to sit down." It was, like so many of Kennedy's public utterances, a pithy line, but civil rights was not a key aspect of his campaign.

Excerpted from Kennedy, Johnson, and the Quest for Justice: The Civil Rights Tapesby Jonathan Rosenberg, Zachary Karabell. Copyright W.W. Norton & Company, September 22, 2003.

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