“The right to vote in a free American election is the most powerful and precious right in the world—and it must not be denied on the grounds of race or color. It is a potent key to achieving other rights of citizenship. For American history—both recent and past—clearly reveals that the power of the ballot has enabled those who achieve it to win other achievements as well, to gain a full voice in the affairs of their state and nation, and to see their interests represented in the governmental bodies which affect their future. In a free society, those with the power to govern are necessarily responsive to those with the right to vote.”
—John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Special Message to the Congress on Civil Rights, 1963
There has been much honoring of the memory of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy this week, and rightly so. He was dynamic figure who preached a “new generation of leadership” vision that still serves as an antithesis to the listless, austerity-burdened rhetoric of so many of today’s political figures—including some in Kennedy’s own Democratic party.
Kennedy saw himself as a liberal reformer, declaring in 1960: “If by a ‘Liberal’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties—someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a ‘Liberal,’ then I’m proud to say I’m a ‘Liberal.’ ”
Kennedy was ardently in favor of religious tolerance, respect for immigrants and labor rights (in 1962 he signed Executive Order 10988, which established the right of most federal workers to bargain collectively). Yes, in his service as a senator from Massachusetts and later as the nation’s thirty-fifth president, Kennedy was a politician of his times, which meant that he could disappoint; surely, he was slower than need be when it came to challenging Cold War dogmas and in calling out Southern resistance to social and economic justice. But Kennedy evolved, as did the nation he led, during the course of his short but transformational presidency.
Kennedy devoted much of the last year of his life to advocacy on behalf of voting rights. His great civil rights address—delivered in the last year of his presidency from the Oval Office to a national television and radio audience—argued that “it ought to be possible for American citizens of any color to register and to vote in a free election without interference or fear of reprisal.”
Fifty years after his assassination, Kennedy can be honored in many ways. But a renewal of his liberal commitment to voting rights would surely be a fine place to begin. The Twenty-fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which eliminated the poll tax, was placed on the national agenda by Kennedy, who made it his personal mission to eliminate the wealth barrier to voting.
Politically savvy, the president knew that enacting a constitutional amendment would be difficult, but he argued for going “the hard way” because of an understanding of the need to go around Southern resistance in the Senate and because of a determination on lock in voting-rights gains.