Inside the Kennedy White House, 1963

Birmingham, Martin Luther King Jr., the Civil Rights Bill, and White Southern Terrorism

Kent B. Germany, Associate Professor of History, University of South Carolina; Nonresident Research Fellow, Miller Center, University of Virginia

John F. Kennedy recorded himself doing many things as president. Most famous was his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Other critical recordings involved discussions of Berlin, Vietnam, Laos, and the broader Cold War. He also documented important exchanges about economic threats, tax cuts, balance of payments problems, a nuclear test ban, and the press. In addition to capturing the business of his presidency, these tapes preserved a soundscape of the White House itself, a landmark building that serves as both home and office. In a few places on these tapes, listeners can detect a helicopter on the lawn, or the tapping of a pencil, or a chaotic children’s party, or the soft voice of President Kennedy—18 days before his own assassination in Dallas—asking his small children about their lives while dictating notes about the recent assassination of the South Vietnamese president.

Kennedy devoted the greatest amount of tape to foreign policy and national security matters. Second in quantity were meetings and conversations about civil rights. Most of the latter recordings remain profound historical audio-documents and highlight the President’s careful relationship with Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Kennedy’s legendary cool-under-pressure style, and his underappreciated legislative acumen. The recorders in the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room documented high-level sessions about the Ole Miss crisis, the Birmingham bombings, the March on Washington, and the Civil Rights Act. They also captured conversations about school desegregation, the impact of racism on the military, and the ever-tricky demands of white southern politicians.

In these civil rights recordings, two things dominated Kennedy’s time: managing crises and managing legislation. The crises came from bombs, bullets, and beatings, as Kennedy coped with defiant, often violent white reactions (aspects of which the administration called “terrorism”) to civil rights activism in Mississippi and Alabama. The legislation came from pressure created by civil rights activism. The historic grassroots mass movement against the nearly century-old system of legalized racial segregation, known as Jim Crow, led to a new politics of race in the United States. By 1963, local events had forced reluctant national leaders like Kennedy to act. As the President told House Majority Leader John W. McCormack [D–Massachusetts], “Events are making our problems. Christ, you know, it's like they shoot this guy in Mississippi—and they shoot somebody—I mean, it's just become everything” [Dictabelt 22A.2]. Eventually, President Kennedy, liberal Democrats, and a small but pivotal contingent of racially progressive Republicans responded with a powerful legislative agenda.

To turn that agenda into a law, the President had to resolve a difficult dilemma. He wanted to see himself re-elected in 1964; most Republicans—and some Democrats, especially in the South—did not. To win convincingly, he somehow had to generate a big turnout from white and black liberals outside the South, while not alienating too many white Democrats inside the South. Along the way he had to avoid appearing to give in to southern segregationists or seeming to take orders from civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.

On the White House civil rights tapes, listeners can follow Kennedy’s transition from a cautious, risk-averse gradualist on civil rights who worried deeply about using too much federal power and upsetting the tradition of federalism, to a savvy legislative leader who set down the foundation of the bill that Lyndon Johnson’s administration helped to pass in 1964. Pulling off that transition required Kennedy’s administration to formulate a bill that would satisfy those intensely committed liberal Democrats and civil rights leaders, giving them just enough to retain essential Republican support. Because of white southern opposition on Capitol Hill, the administration needed the votes of at least 60 Republicans in the House and a comparable number in the Senate. As the civil rights challenges of 1963 progressed from the Birmingham dogs and bombs of early May to the legislative backroom back-and-forth of late October, managing crises and legislation became part of a common process, often merging into the same thing.


For most of his presidency, John Kennedy was hardly an ally of civil rights activists. On the one hand, he was a politician leading a national party filled with white supremacists deeply hostile to any civil rights progress. On the other, he was an extraordinarily wealthy white man from New England who was educated at the most exclusive prep schools and universities in the world. He had little personal interaction with African Americans for most of his life, and his exposure to southern culture was just as limited.

As president, Kennedy was much better prepared to deal with Communists abroad than with members of his own party at home. Almost all white southerners on Capitol Hill were racial segregationists, and almost all of them were fundamentally dedicated to preserving white supremacy in the region. With their long careers and seniority, southerners tended to control many of the key committees in Congress and could exert a parliamentary death grip on a wide range of legislation. For the first two and a half years of his presidency, Kennedy never had the equivalent of a domestic Cuban Missile Crisis moment where he stared down a Jim Crow defender in the civil rights arena and got to see the other fellow blink (to borrow from Dean Rusk’s pithy line about the Soviet’s backing away from confrontation in Cuba).

On civil rights, southern political leaders almost begged for the chance to stare down the president “eyeball-to-eyeball,” essentially daring him to take aggressive action. And in most cases, Kennedy was the one doing the blinking. He practiced civil rights by increment: an executive order on federal housing policy, a smattering of legislative proposals designed to chip away at the edges of Jim Crow, a few school desegregation lawsuits from the Justice Department, a push to desegregate facilities near military bases. Before the administration’s shift to more aggressive civil rights advocacy in the late spring and summer of 1963, its two most notable moments were the attempts to keep the Freedom Rides of 1961 from turning deadly and the efforts to thwart Mississippi governor Ross Barnett’s crusade to prevent the desegregation of Ole Miss in September and October 1962.

In 1961, violent acts of white southern defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Boynton v. Virginia decision (prohibiting racial segregation of interstate travel facilities) included the firebombing of a bus carrying white and black activists, the severe beating of white and black passengers in at least three southern cities, and the threat of massive white mob attacks on a black church filled to capacity in Montgomery, Alabama. The Freedom Rides merited a series of anxious phone calls and the dispatch of a small force of federal marshals and officers to Montgomery. To get the Freedom Riders out of Alabama, the best that Kennedy could do was to strike a deal: the state of Mississippi would protect the riders long enough to arrest them, and, in exchange, Mississippians could expect little desegregation enforcement pressure from the Kennedy-controlled Interstate Commerce Commission. In the meantime, the administration tried to channel the energy of the growing mass protest movement into voter registration and into court battles. As Attorney General Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy frequently said, the administration wanted to “get them into the courts and out of the streets” [Meeting Tape 90.1 and 90.2].

The movement for civil rights and the white segregationist movement against it, however, could not be easily managed. In 1962, the state government of Mississippi refused several attempts by the administration to enroll James Meredith, a black U.S. Air Force veteran, into the state’s flagship university. Tired of the usurpation of the Constitution, President Kennedy put Meredith on campus under protection of the U.S. Marshals Service and the Justice Department. A riot broke out that killed two people, and the President spent a long night on the phone to the campus where Deputy Attorney General Nicholas “Nick” Katzenbach and a group of 300 federal marshals were under attack. Mississippi marked a major shift for Kennedy as he ordered the U.S. Army into a southern city, following a path taken by President Dwight D. Eisenhower five years earlier in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Twice in 1963, the Kennedy administration had to decide whether to send in federal troops to the South to restore order. Both instances came in the aftermath of vicious bombings in Birmingham, Alabama, one of which killed four young girls in a church. As the civil rights movement intensified, Birmingham became bigger than its city boundaries: It became a symbol of an American problem. Something so wrong in Alabama meant something, ultimately, was wrong in America as a nation. For Kennedy, as for so many others across the country, Birmingham posed a moral problem, a political problem, and a national identity problem. And at this critical time in the Cold War, it made America look antidemocratic to many worldwide.


The freedom movement in Birmingham was long-standing, but it had grown noticeably in the years after World War II. By the late 1950s, a group of formidable African American–led organizations were in place, and they guided activism throughout the mid-1960s. Their efforts ultimately helped to crack Jim Crow in one of its citadels and gave crucial momentum to national civil rights efforts. The oldest and most nationally recognizable group was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In the mid-1950s after the Brown v. Board of Education decision ended the constitutional doctrine of “separate but equal,” white leaders in Alabama (and other southern states) tried to get rid of the NAACP. They passed laws requiring its branches to register with the state government, demanded the organization submit its membership lists to the state, and applied potentially lethal financial pressure on the organization. But the legal assault failed in 1958 when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling that made it possible for the NAACP to function in the state.

In the meantime, two other groups emerged, led by young, dynamic figures who pressed for more direct challenges to white supremacy. Reverend Frederick L. “Fred” Shuttlesworth was a key leader of the first group, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR). Shuttlesworth was a fiery proponent of intensive direct action protests, and his activism almost cost him his life. On Christmas Day 1956, he miraculously survived a dynamite bombing that destroyed his home—a scare that only deepened his commitment. The next year, when he and his wife tried to send their children to an all-white school, they were beaten viciously by a white mob. The second group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), formed in 1957 with a membership dominated by black male ministers from southern cities. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had become an internationally celebrated figure during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955–1956, helmed the SCLC organization until his assassination in 1968.

Beginning in late 1962 and carrying on into the next year, ACMHR, SCLC, and others led a campaign known as Project C (most sources believe the “C” stood for “confrontation”). Two moments stand out historically. One was the arrest of Reverend King on Good Friday, 12 April 1963. In his prison cell, King used the margins of newspapers and other improvised stationery to craft his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which defended the violation of unjust laws out of an obligation to observe higher moral laws. The second involved a series of demonstrations on 3–7 May 1963, which culminated in the controversial practice of involving children in public protests—thereby placing them in harm’s way. Birmingham authorities responded harshly, and people around the world soon saw images of police dogs biting bystanders and of firefighters blasting children with high-pressure fire hoses. Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, a vicious segregationist who had served as Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety, led that aggressive, politically tone-deaf response. Connor had recently lost the city’s mayoral election, but contested the outcome and refused to step aside for the new administration. This confusion left a power vacuum. Connor exploited the situation and arrested thousands of demonstrators, almost joyfully suppressing the protesters. At one point, he publicly wished that Reverend Shuttlesworth had been killed during one of the demonstrations instead of merely having to go to the hospital.

By 7 May, enough pressure had built to force local white business leaders to agree to negotiate with black leaders on ways to desegregate downtown businesses. On 10 May, they reached an agreement to begin desegregation and to increase the hiring of black workers. Burke Marshall, the assistant attorney general for civil rights in the U.S. Justice Department, brokered the arrangement.

On 11 May, a little before midnight, bombs exploded at the home of Martin Luther King Jr.’s brother and at a hotel where Reverend King frequently stayed. This put the Birmingham movement literally on the desk of President Kennedy the next day, as he and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, reviewed photographs of the damage and recorded their reactions on audiotape. On 12 May, the President convened a meeting with the Attorney General and his top civil rights aides. They considered sending in the Army to preserve order and ultimately did move troops to nearby military bases, but events calmed down enough for them to avoid reawakening ghosts of the Civil War and using troops to occupy southern soil.

Four months later, President Kennedy faced a similar scenario after the murder of four African American girls in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church (the same church that had hosted young marchers in May). Once again, the administration mobilized troops, but believed that the disorder was not enough to put them on the streets of Birmingham.


The Birmingham movement led to a local victory on 10 May. Perhaps equally important, it encouraged the Kennedy administration to revise its civil rights agenda for the upcoming year. After extensive drafting sessions in May and early June, President Kennedy proposed a sweeping civil rights bill on 11 June. On the same day that Alabama governor George C. Wallace Jr. made his famous stand in the schoolhouse door to object to the desegregation of the University of Alabama—with the tall, balding deputy attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach staring down Wallace—President Kennedy gave a nationally televised speech announcing the new legislation and his renewed commitment to racial progress. His proposal contained provisions to prohibit discrimination in public accommodations and to allow the Attorney General to initiate school desegregation lawsuits. It set out three objectives: some vague commitments to limit discrimination in jobs and to provide more job training, the creation of a Community Relations Service to mediate racial disputes, and a cautious warning that discrimination in the use of federal funds would not be tolerated.

The proposal, however, did not include key parts of the eventual Civil Rights Act of 1964. It lacked three key components that would later round out the legislation: the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (an update of the Fair Employment Practices Committee), the landmark provision to outlaw job discrimination against women, and the tough section to withhold federal funding from entities practicing discrimination.1 What appears on the tapes from June through October 1963 (the final recording about civil rights occurred approximately three weeks before the President’s assassination) is John Kennedy’s attempt to turn his legislative vision into an actual bill that could pass the House and overcome an expected southern filibuster in the Senate. Ironically, some of the greatest threats to his bill came from some of Kennedy’s best allies: liberals in his own party. Northern Democrats pushed provisions that went far beyond what he wanted and threatened to destroy promises that Kennedy had made to key Republicans to secure their support. And plenty of ambitious Republicans stood ready to get their own watered-down civil rights bill in the mix. Southern segregationists dug in to fight the legislation with every resource available.

In 1963, John Kennedy and his advisers learned firsthand the limits of presidential power when it came to forcing constitutionally sanctioned racial change. Ultimately, that process required new power and new laws, and the Kennedy administration pushed those laws forward while being pushed themselves by the energy, courage, and moral eloquence of local people at the local level.

JFK Civil Rights Tapes Timeline

7 March 1963

“Cox has not been good”

President Kennedy and Deputy Attorney General Nicholas “Nick” Katzenbach held a brief telephone call about Kennedy judicial appointees in Louisiana and Mississippi (particularly Harold Cox) presenting problems in desegregation cases.

12 May 1963

“God, they really blew that hotel up, didn't they?”

On Friday, 10 May, the White House helped broker a historic agreement between civil rights leaders and white business leaders in Birmingham to desegregate the city’s downtown businesses. The next night, just before midnight, bombs exploded at the home of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s brother and at the A. G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham, the black-owned inn frequented by Dr. King on his visits to the city. Several hours of civil disorder followed. President Kennedy had been at Camp David and had arrived back in Washington on the afternoon of Sunday, 12 May, convening a high-level meeting with Attorney General Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy, Defense Secretary Robert S. “Bob” McNamara, Army Chief of Staff General Earle C. “Bus” Wheeler, and several others to discuss the situation. The meeting began with President Kennedy looking at photographs of the destruction and wondering if Black Muslims could have set off the explosions. His brother, the Attorney General, said it was unlikely and then gave a long report on what the Justice Department had learned and what options were available to ensure law and order. A top priority was to maintain the agreement reached on 10 May. Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall, the administration official who had negotiated the settlement, worried that if the agreement fell apart, “the Negroes will become uncontrollable.”

20 May 1963

“The trouble with King is everybody thinks he's our boy”

The protests in Birmingham and the ensuing national and international attention spurred the White House to rethink its civil rights agenda. Earlier in 1963, on 28 February, President Kennedy had announced plans to push for a hodgepodge of civil rights measures. They included relatively weak measures to increase black voter registration in the South, speed school desegregation, limit discrimination in public accommodations and employment in federally controlled areas, and extend the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.2

The meeting recorded here shows that the situation had changed dramatically. President Kennedy and his top civil rights advisers (with the notable exception of Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was not in attendance) considered the advantages and disadvantages of several measures to insert into a new civil rights bill. They all agreed that outlawing discrimination in public accommodations was essential, but had little enthusiasm for creating a new Federal Employment Practices Commission because of anticipated opposition from Republicans and conservative southern Democrats. A third major item garnered a hostile response from the Justice Department and no enthusiasm from the President. Attorney General Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy worried that including Title III, the controversial proposal to give the Justice Department extensive authority to prosecute violations of rights, would doom the bill’s chance for passage, and if it did pass, the provisions of Title III would actually overwhelm the Justice Department.

The meeting was also notable for its focus on information that Robert Kennedy had gathered from comedian Dick Gregory. At one point, Attorney General Kennedy relayed the news that “[NAACP executive secretary] Roy Wilkins hates Martin Luther King.”

21 May 1963

“That night you were going to have a real war in Birmingham”

To the dismay of President Kennedy, white business leaders in Birmingham had pointed out that the federal government had a particularly terrible record in hiring black workers in Alabama. “Why should we hire Negroes?” they asked the Kennedy administration. “You don't hire Negroes.”

In response, the administration began a hasty program to investigate ways to improve the situation. In this recording of a Cabinet meeting, Attorney General Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy gave a detailed history of recent events in Birmingham and then handed the meeting over to Civil Service commissioner John W. Macy Jr. for a report on black employment in the executive branch.

25 May 1963

“They're sick of the administration, that we haven't done anything”

In what has since become a famous moment in 1963, Attorney General Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy was shocked by the anger directed at him and the administration during a New York meeting with writer James Baldwin and several high-profile black figures. The day after that long session, he called President Kennedy to report on how badly the exchange had gone. Unfortunately, this recording picked up only President Kennedy’s side of the conversation because the President was in a meeting with Secretary of Defense Robert S. “Bob” McNamara and did not use the Dictabelt telephone recorder. Kennedy relayed his brother’s summary to McNamara: “The night's event was two hours, disaster. Half of them walked out.”

1 June 1963

“Get them into the courts and out of the streets”

President Kennedy and his top civil rights advisers—this time including Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson—continued to discuss measures to be incorporated into new civil rights legislation. Among many topics, this meeting focused on specific language for a public accommodation section in the bill and the administration’s desire, in the words of Attorney General Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy, to “get them into the courts and out of the streets.”

3 June 1963

“It's going to be the bloodiest thing. It's going to be a civil war”

President Kennedy called Louisiana governor James H. “Jimmie” Davis (who many knew best as a country music star) to get his support to keep Democratic Party electors on the 1964 ballot instead of a slate of independent ones, which many of the state’s archsegregationist politicians preferred. Davis, for his part, urged Kennedy to use federal power to stop civil rights demonstrations. Both men seized on the idea that the problem was not just a southern one. Demonstrations were, in Kennedy’s words, “moving up north.”

12 June 1963

“Well, hell, you know, Christ, just events are making our problems. [. . .] They shoot this guy in Mississippi.” 

The 11th day of June 1963 was momentous for the Kennedy administration. The Department of Justice stared down Alabama governor George C. Wallace Jr. during his “stand in the schoolhouse door,” and that evening President Kennedy announced the civil rights bill. Later, Mississippi NAACP director Medgar Evers was assassinated getting out of his car at home in Jackson. Meanwhile, nine thousand miles away in Saigon in South Vietnam, a Buddhist monk, Thích Quảng Đức, burned himself to death in a public protest against the U.S.-backed regime of Ngô Đình Diệm.

Unfortunately, there are no White House recordings for that day. On 12 June, however, President Kennedy did record a phone call about legislative obstruction by southern segregationists. House Majority Leader Carl B. Albert [D–Oklahoma] described the defeat of a bill to boost funding for the Area Redevelopment Administration (ARA), a federal bureaucracy designed to address problems associated with poverty and economic development in depressed areas of Appalachia. Created by the May 1961 passage of the Area Redevelopment Act, the agency initially had the support of a coalition of liberal Democrats, southern segregationists, and some Republicans. In this call, Kennedy and Albert blamed its budget defeat on southern segregationists upset by provisions requiring desegregation and by the defections of many Republicans. To the President and the Majority Leader, the defeat signaled a strengthening of the coalition of Republicans and conservative southern Democrats, and a tough year ahead for any progressive legislation.

14 June 1963

“It was the roughest thing that we’ve ever had down here”

President Kennedy thanked Louisiana governor James H. “Jimmie” Davis for supporting the defeat of state legislation to replace Democratic electors with independent electors, a move desired by some of Louisiana’s most powerful white supremacists.

18 June 1963

“I give you full permission to denounce me in public as long as you don't in private”

President Kennedy urged Mayor Allen C. Thompson of Jackson, Mississippi, to help calm the tension that arose in the aftermath of the assassination of Medgar Evers, the director of the Mississippi NAACP. A Kennedy administration official, John Doar of the Justice Department, had captured headlines (and become the subject of a famous photograph) by helping to defuse a tense moment on the streets after Evers’s funeral on 15 June.

18 June 1963

“We have an explosive situation here”

President Kennedy and Jackson mayor Allen C. Thompson continued their dialogue about the tense situation in Mississippi’s capital.

9 July 1963

“When they stand up there and come out for segregation, it may cost them the economy of their state” 

President Kennedy, Secretary of Defense Robert S. “Bob” McNamara, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, and others met to discuss ways to desegregate facilities near southern military bases and to improve conditions for black soldiers serving in the South.

25 July 1963

“I hope I'm not disturbing you”

President Kennedy asked David Cole, a prominent labor arbitrator, to direct the Community Relations Service, a yet-to-be-created federal agency to mediate racial conflict in the South.

31 July 1963

“Are they discriminating now?”

Senator Russell B. Long [D–Louisiana] aired his concerns about a nondiscrimination requirement in highway contracts. He was particularly worried that contractors would have to become “Sherlock Holmes” to investigate their own companies.

6 August 1963

“How few Negroes hold high-level jobs in the government”

The ongoing dilemma of hiring more black employees in the federal government continued as President Kennedy spoke to congressional liaison Claude Desautels about complaints of discrimination against white workers in the U.S. Post Office.

28 August 1963

“What they’re trying to do is play the South, and with some success”

After the March on Washington, nine of the leaders joined President Kennedy at the White House, where recorders captured this historic exchange in the Cabinet Room. One of the primary speakers in the meeting was A. Philip Randolph, the longtime leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the titular head of the 1963 march. This was his second attempt at such a march. In 1941, he had organized the March on Washington Movement to protest hiring discrimination in defense industries. In response, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the FEPC, among other such measures, to keep the march from occurring. In a stroke of good fortune for historians, Roosevelt had recorded Randolph in a 1940 White House meeting protesting the segregation of the military and the widespread discrimination in hiring. In this day’s meeting with President Kennedy, Randolph and the others continued to focus on jobs and job discrimination, while Kennedy emphasized the need for more education.

19 September 1963

“The Negro feels that everywhere he goes, if he remains stationary, he’s in danger of some physical violence”

Four days after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four black girls, President Kennedy met with Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Reverend Frederick L. “Fred” Shuttlesworth, and several black leaders from Birmingham. Dr. King began the meeting with a poignant review of the dangers faced by black southerners. President Kennedy was relatively passive during the session, especially in comparison to his domination of a meeting yet to come with white Birmingham leaders on 23 September.

23 September 1963

“If we’re having a meeting with those bastards, I’d like to have a little, get a little benefit from it”

Before sitting down with white leaders from Birmingham, President Kennedy sought counsel from his top civil rights advisers. One key decision was for Attorney General Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy not to attend the meeting, in order to avoid antagonizing the white southerners.

23 September 1963

“You don't want federal troops in there, and I don't” 

Hoping to have local white leaders do more to maintain law and order in Birmingham and reduce tension there, President Kennedy hosted several Birmingham political figures and business leaders at the White House. Unlike his performance a few days earlier with several black leaders, he was persistent and aggressive in this session, but also expressed sympathy for the predicament faced by whites who wanted to maintain segregation.

30 September 1963

“The difficulty is, can you get 60 Republicans for this bill?”

President Kennedy received a report from Reverend Eugene Carson Blake about his meeting with former president Dwight D. Eisenhower regarding the civil rights bill. Blake, the head of the United Presbyterian Church (USA) and former president of the United Council of Churches, was an outspoken champion of civil rights progress and had been part of the March on Washington delegation. Kennedy had asked him to sit down with Eisenhower as part of a larger effort to gain much-needed Republican support for the civil rights legislation working its way through congressional committees.

23 October 1963

“We thought we had an agreement with McCulloch”

President Kennedy needed approximately 60 Republican votes from the House for his civil rights bill to offset the loss of segregationist Democrats. Crafting a bill to satisfy liberal Democrats without alienating Republicans was proving difficult. The key Republican, William M. “Bill” McCulloch [R–Ohio], had previously worked out with Kennedy an agreement of support, but a more aggressive Democratic version of the bill threatened to change McCulloch’s mind. This recording captured Kennedy’s discussion with Attorney General Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy, Deputy Attorney General Nicholas “Nick” Katzenbach, and Lawrence F. “Larry” O’Brien Jr., the White House’s top congressional liaison.

23 October 1963

“If we both do our job, we ought to be able to put together a majority”

President Kennedy convened a meeting with William M. “Bill” McCulloch [R–Ohio] (the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee) and other key congressional leaders to find a way forward on the civil rights bill.

28 October 1963

“He'll vote for any goddamned thing you want”

Hoping to persuade Roland V. Libonati [D–Illinois], a native of Chicago, to support the administration’s civil rights bill in a key House Judiciary Committee vote, President Kennedy asked for help from Chicago mayor Richard J. “Dick” Daley, perhaps the country’s most powerful mayor. Daley had a reputation for being able to control the votes of congressional representatives from Chicago. In clear, colorful language, Daley affirmed that Libonati would support the administration. Libonati, though, had other intentions.

29 October 1963

“He was wrong at five and right at seven. Now, what is it?”

Hoping to ensure that the administration had enough votes to kill a motion in the House Judiciary Committee to consider a more liberal version of the civil rights bill—and to avoid the problem of Republicans defecting—President Kennedy brought together the key congressional leaders one more time before the crucial vote. At the end of the meeting, the recorders picked up Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson asking Deputy Attorney General Nicholas “Nick” Katzenbach about “German girls,” a reference to the rumor of an East German call girl having ties to the Kennedys and others in the nation’s capital.

29 October 1963

“Let a little dust settle”

“Old Gut-Fighter Charlie,” as Charles A. Halleck [R–Indiana] was known, was an essential Republican ally on civil rights legislation. President Kennedy called to praise his work in getting the administration bill through the House Judiciary Committee instead of a much stronger liberal version that they had expected would die in the full House from lack of Republican support.

30 October 1963

“If that civil rights bill is going to come out . . . then what would our schedule be?”

In the last recorded Kennedy exchange regarding civil rights, the President spoke briefly with Senate Majority Leader Michael J. “Mike” Mansfield [D–Montana]. Reflecting a tendency in the Kennedy presidency overall, most of the call dealt with the Cold War. A little over three weeks later, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.



A week later, he laid out the specifics of what he called the “Civil Rights Act of 1963” (which eventually became the Civil Rights Act of 1964). John F. Kennedy, "Radio and Television Report to the American People on Civil Rights," June 11, 1963, Public Papers of the Presidents: John F. Kennedy, 1963 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1964),; John F. Kennedy, "Special Message to the Congress on Civil Rights and Job Opportunities," June 19, 1963, Public Papers of the Presidents: John F. Kennedy, 1963 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1964),


“Special Message to Congress on Civil Rights,” February 28, 1963, Public Papers of the Presidents: John F. Kennedy, 1963 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1964),