From: James Puz
Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald was mortally wounded by Jack Ruby two days later while in police custody. How Ruby was allowed such access to the president’s alleged assassin was suspicious from the onset and before the Four Dark Days were over, rumor mills began churning out theories and speculations that continue to this day.
Hair-brained, if not totally moronic, theories emerged. The new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, was the culprit. Others felt the military/industrial complex hatched the plan. The mob (pick one) paid a trigger man, while the CIA was viewed as the guilty party. The Soviets were thought capable of killing our president. Even Cuban exiles were targeted with unfounded accusations. In the end, a discontented Lee Harvey Oswald, alone or in concert with others, eventually became the fall guy. Or was he a patsy? In any event, nobody came up with a specific “why” the President of the United States had to be killed.
However, certain parties in a deeply segregated South might have known the “why.” You see, the dead president had been spearheading a vigorous campaign for a civil rights act aimed right at the bigoted heart of Dixie. What would now become of President Kennedy’s efforts?
Angered by the brutal and vicious attacks on children and students by police with dogs and high-pressure fire hoses during the peaceful Children’s Crusade march in Birmingham, Ala., in May of that year, President Kennedy immediately began collecting support for his civil rights bill. He launched his campaign with a nationally televised speech June 11. Events would advance quickly as supporters on both sides of the issue dug in with unswerving resolve.
Civil rights leader Medgar Evers was murdered one day after the president’s address. Dr. Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech August 28 and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing occurred September 15.
By November, the House of Representatives had passed its own version of Kennedy’s bill. The president was now playing for keeps. So was the opposition. A sniper’s bullets cut short the young president’s life.
Was it a coincidence that President Kennedy was halfway to his goal of a civil rights act when he was gunned down in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza? Was an attempt on the president’s life a way to stop, or at least delay, passage of the act? And keeping in mind there was no guarantee President Kennedy would even be wounded, much less killed, was it a gamble that some felt was well worth the risk and effort?
On November 27, President Johnson said before a joint session of Congress, “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.”
The Senate passed its version of the bill on June 19, 1964, following the end of a 57-day filibuster on June 10. That was the first time in Senate history that a civil rights bill filibuster had been cutoff. History was being made as all the world watched.
Both houses of Congress passed a compromise bill and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 took effect July 2. Afterward, President Johnson expressed his opinion that the act would have passed had Kennedy lived. However, the president did not speculate as to when that might have happened. There is no certainty regarding the future, not even the passage of a critical bill.
What is certain is that the death of John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, galvanized a people and a Congress into action. What is certain is that the president had become one of countless martyrs in a long, costly war over civil rights. And what is certain is that a cold-blooded effort to derail a badly needed civil rights bill had in fact assured its passage.
Out of a national tragedy rose a new hope. Like the phoenix rising from the ashes, a new birth, a new dawn for human rights, opportunity and dignity lay before this nation. A brand new highway had been laid down, providing the way for a better future for millions of American citizens.
But the war isn’t over yet, not by a jugful. There’s still a lot of work to be done...by you and me.