The Southern base of the Democratic Party was strongly opposed to civil rights, and Kennedy was pre-occupied with the Soviet Union. The civil rights movement was on front pages from Moscow to Paris to Bejing. Journalist and historian Taylor Branch said America's oppression of its own citizens was ridiculed abroad. "This is the height of the Cold War, and we're talking about the free world, and the Russians, and the Communists are saying, 'free world, ha! What kind of free world? You're oppressing your own people.'"
Fuel was added to the fire on June 11, 1963, when the segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace, pledged to prevent the court-ordered admission of black students to the University of Alabama.
Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, who was given the job of confronting Wallace, said, "Everything that we knew led us to believe that we were going to have to bring the military in, that he would yield to the military."
That morning the president had federalized the Alabama National Guard to force the students' admission.
For two years Kennedy had avoided wading into the muddy waters of the civil rights struggle. But after watching Gov. Wallace's show of resistance, Kennedy told his aides he wanted to talk to the nation on television that night. He told the nation:
"We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities. Are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other, that this is a land of the free, except for the Negroes, that we have no second-class citizens, except Negroes, that we have no class or caste system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes? Now the time has come for this nation to fulfill its promise."
Eight days after the president spoke on television, he sent a civil rights bill to Congress. It was the most important presidential initiative for black Americans since President Lincoln freed the slaves.
If it passed the Congress, black Americans could no longer be excluded from restaurants, hotels and other public facilities anywhere.
But the president was worried about the march on Washington.
He and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, met with the civil rights leaders and asked them to stop it.
But A. Philip Randolph, King, and the other leaders refused to back down.
"When it was clear that the march was going to take place," Katzenbach remembers, "the decision was made either by President Kennedy or by Bobby or by the two of them, I imagine, that what we would do is not only accept the march, but we would, in essence, join the march and try to achieve some kind of control. We were very nervous."
When King left the White House, he flew to Detroit, where 100,000 people demonstrated for civil rights. That afternoon King used the same words that he would later repeat for the world in Washington.
He told the Detroit crowd, "I have a dream this evening that one day we will recognize the words of Jefferson that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I have a dream this afternoon."