Do you think that the president did everything in his power to
better the situation at the time?
I believe that both sitting presidents, Kennedy and Johnson did
everything that they thought was necessary during the time of the
movement. I don't believe that either of them fully realized the impact
that the media would eventually have on the entire country. The visions
of Black children being attacked by police dogs, and sprayed with fire
hoses by 'Bull' Conner being shown on national television had a great
impact on the general thinking of the populace. Much like the vision of
the soldiers being killed in Vietnam eventually made that war come to a
close, the people suddenly realized that what was going on was very
real....and that something had to be done in a positive manner.
No, he did the minimum he could given the public pressure he was under.
Throughout the whole time both Kennedy and Johnson, and also Congress,
were afraid to anger the Southern segregationists who controlled a large
bloc of votes in Congress and the Electoral College. So they dragged
their feet and did as little as possible.
The President chose to ignore the situation as long as possible and not
protect the civil rights workers. Only with the violence that was
perpetrated on the movement by white racists did the nation and later
the President begin to take notice. Only when political pressure was put
on him and other elected officials from millions who understood the
horror of segregation did elected officials reluctantly pass the
legislation that meant that racism was against the law. This was a huge
victory. People mobilized to force politicians to do what they don't
want to do the people made the change! This is the basic
model of the goal of any social movement and the Civil Rights Movement
stands as the model for that success.
Wazir (Willie) Peacock:
No, Kennedy did not do all that he could do. We should have gotten
federal protection, because we were doing voter registration. The
citizens had the right to vote. It's a right, not a privilege. In the
South, they were treating it like it was some kind of privilege. It was
in the law and the power of the President to order the Justice
Department to give us protection, but we had a director of the FBI at
the time [J. Edgar Hoover] who boldly said that he was not going to
protect those Civil Rights workers. He had that kind of clout, he could
Of course, President Kennedy could have ordered him, but he never did.
He never did order it, and for good reason for himself. He was already
getting himself ready to run for a second term. You had Senator Eastland
and Senator Strom Thurmond [both Democrats at that time] and all those
other politicians. He had to play politics. He couldn't come out, and be
elected again, because Blacks in the South did not have the vote yet.
For example, when Fannie Lou Hamer, in the fall of '62, was shot at for
trying to register, Kennedy spoke about it the next day, but that's all.
At that time, he had the opportunity. He could have justified sending
Federal marshals in to protect us but he didn't do that.
I was so naive, especially about Kennedy. I wasn't fully aware of the
kinds of games that Kennedy was playing. I got caught up, as everybody
around me got caught up, in he's young, he's bright, he's not a racist,
he's gonna do something. So there was an enormous amount of optimism
about Kennedy. I didn't really know until maybe my senior year when I
started looking at the judges he was appointing Carswell
and people like that and asking what's this all about?
He's saying one thing and he's appointing these judges in the Deep
South. That's around '62 when the violence is taking place with the
Civil Rights workers in Mississippi.
Then, of course, he's assassinated and I'm in Ann Arbor at that point.
By then, nobody in the White House would have satisfied me at all.
Certainly Johnson didn't in any way. I was looking forward to my
graduation from graduate school and I found out that they invited
Johnson to speak. So I was on the train going back to Baltimore when the
others were gathering for graduation because I just wasn't going to sit
through Johnson. It was my personal protest.
By the time I'm on my way to the South as a young teacher and an
activist, everything coming from Washington is, at best, suspect. I
simply didn't believe in Johnson, because of his pronounced Southern
drawl. I just could not believe that he was going to be any better and
probably a lot worse than his predecessors, all of them. At that time I
had had no contact with the FBI, ever. So I didn't really know the worst
of it, but I knew by then that nothing was going to happen unless you