Why JFK decided to embrace civil rights as a 'moral issue' in 1963: OPINION

Urged on by his brother Bobby, JFK addressed the nation 57 years ago today.

Fifty-seven years ago today, John F. Kennedy made one of his most important and enduring orations, an appeal to all Americans to accept civil rights as "a moral issue ... as old as the scriptures and as clear as the Constitution."

It was a welcome declaration for African Americans and other people of color who faced systemic racism and, in much of the South, segregation as a daily reality in American life.

But Kennedy's speech was long in coming.

While he had wrestled with the festering question of civil rights in his two and a half years in the White House, Kennedy had resisted putting the full weight of the presidency behind it, contending that it was a legal issue over which he could do little. Among many others, Martin Luther King chided Kennedy for not bringing "moral passion" to the cause of racial equality.

That changed on June 11, 1963, when Kennedy told his aides, "I want to go on television tonight."

"If an American, because his skin is dark … cannot enjoy [a] full and free life," the president said in his address that evening, "...then who among us would want to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?"

Why did Kennedy change course on civil rights? It came largely due to the influence and evolving view of his brother, Bobby Kennedy, who served as his attorney general and closest advisor.

Like his brother, Bobby Kennedy had seen no great urgency in the cause of racial equality. By his own admission, he "did not lie awake at night worrying about the problems" of African Americans. But in the spring of 1963 his perspective began to change.

By then, Martin Luther King had brought a direct-action civil rights campaign to Birmingham, Alabama, "the most thoroughly segregated city in the country," where demonstrators were seized by vicious police dogs and brutalized by fire hoses that blasted 700 pounds of pressurized water. Arrested and thrown into solitary confinement, King scrawled his seminal "Letter from the Birmingham Jail," from his small, dark cell, contributing to the slow awakening of the country to the urgency of civil rights.

But a deeper impression was made on Bobby Kennedy in New York City, where he met with a number of African American activists who gathered at his invitation. The group had been assembled by 38-year-old novelist James Baldwin, whose celebrated New Yorker piece titled "Letter from a Region in My Mind," claimed, "The Negroes of this country may never be able to rise to power, but they are well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and bring down the curtain of the American dream."

John Kennedy was among those who were taken by Baldwin's powerful essay, and later by a Time magazine cover story on Baldwin called "The Root of the Negro Problem." He encouraged his brother to draw out Baldwin on the matter -- and Baldwin and the "rowdy" group he put together at Bobby Kennedy's urging didn't hold back.

The gathering, in the Kennedy family's spacious Central Park South apartment, began civilly enough before Jerome Smith, a young Freedom Rider who had been arrested and hospitalized for the beatings he sustained, lit into the attorney general about the plight of African Americans. He "put it like it was," recalled actress and singer Lena Horne, "the plain, basic suffering of being a negro," becoming so worked up in his diatribe that he blurted out he wanted to vomit just being in the same room with Bobby Kennedy.

At least, that's what Kennedy heard. What Smith was trying to convey was that having to make a plea to the attorney general for rights that should intrinsically be his as an American citizen made him feel like vomiting. Nonetheless, the assault hit Kennedy between the eyes. As he turned to ignore Smith, the anger in the room hissed louder. Kennedy sat down, reeling, trying to collect himself.

The Irish were persecuted, too, he told the group. His grandfather had landed on American shores as the object of prejudice, and now, two generations later, his brother was president. As he took in Kennedy's words, Baldwin's scorn for his insularity was as palpable as his shock at his naivete; his family had been in America far longer, Baldwin countered, and they were still clinging to society's lowest rung.

Though the meeting lasted three hours, it stayed with Kennedy far longer. "After Baldwin," said Nicholas Katzenbach, Kennedy's deputy attorney general, "he was in absolute shock. Bobby expected to be an honorary black … he thought he knew so much -- and he didn't."

Initially, Kennedy seethed -- afterward, he excoriated Baldwin to others -- but as his anger cooled, his mind began to change, turning to empathy. In his own way, Bobby Kennedy knew what it was to grow up feeling inferior, in his case in the shadow of his formidable older brothers, and he talked about how he would feel if his children were on the other side of Jim Crow segregation.

If he had been born black in America, he told an aide several days after the New York meeting, his feelings wouldn't have differed much from those of Baldwin.

Afterward, he urged his brother to embrace civil rights as a moral issue. Though the bulk of President Kennedy's advisors counseled him against making his speech on June 11, claiming it was too soon, Bobby Kennedy was the lone exception. "He urged it, he felt it, he understood it, and he prevailed," deputy attorney general Burke Marshall said. "I don't think there was anyone in the cabinet -- except the president himself -- who felt that way on these issues, and the president got it from his brother."

It offers a lesson for today. Painful as it may have been, Bobby Kennedy listened to those whose everyday experiences as Americans were far different from his. He acknowledged his privilege, he opened his mind and his heart. And he worked toward making a difference.

At that crucial moment in history, he did.

Mark K. Updegrove is ABC News' presidential historian and the author of the forthcoming book, "Incomparable Grace: JFK in the Presidency." He is the president and CEO of the LBJ Foundation. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the views of ABC News or the Walt Disney Co.