The Kennedy Justice Department's Enforcement of Civil Rights: A View from the Trenches
Brian K. Landsberg
University of the Pacific - McGeorge School of Law
JOHN F. KENNEDY: HISTORY, MEMORY, LEGACY, University of North Dakota
Pacific McGeorge School of Law Research Paper No. 10-06
The Kennedy Justice Department faced challenges with no modern precedent: the Southern defiance of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the rise of non-violent protests on a massive scale, and the Administration's desire to break a racial caste system that it did not fully understand. Reconstruction provided a precedent for federal action, but the President was, to some extent, a captive of the myth that federal intervention had been a colossal failure, leading only to misrule and racial division.
Much has been written about President Kennedy's mixed record on civil rights - his philosophical commitment to equality, his ambiguous votes on civil rights bills as a Senator, his letter regarding Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s prison term in Georgia, his decision not to make civil rights a priority at the beginning of his presidency, his appointment of racist federal judges in the South, his proposal of comprehensive civil rights legislation after two and a half years as President, and so on. In the 1960's and 1970's, several books and articles focused critically on the work of the Kennedy Department of Justice relating to civil rights. According to those critiques, the Department's voting rights enforcement was ineffectual, it refused to protect civil rights workers from official and private violence, and it was only reactive with respect to school desegregation. Reevaluation of one aspect of the work of the Division during that period yields a more nuanced and largely positive picture and suggests that scholars should take a second look.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 29
Keywords: race discrimination, Kennedy administration, Department of Justice, Civil Rights
JEL Classification: J70, J71, J78, K42
Date posted: October 25, 2009 ; Last revised: May 1, 2015