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Tape reveals JFK fuming over civil rights

A recently discovered audiotape from the Kennedy administration reveals President Kennedy frustrated with events in the South, a president expressing raw feelings at one of the civil rights era's tragically iconic photographs.
A 17-year-old civil rights demonstrator, defying an anti-parade ordinance in  Birmingham, Ala., is attacked by a police dog in this May 3, 1963 file photo, one of the iconic images of the civil rights era, and a picture that aroused emotion in President John F. Kennedy.Bill Hudson / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

On the afternoon of May 4, 1963, President Kennedy wasn’t in a mood to mince words.

As he met in the White House with members of a liberal political group, he fumed when one of them mentioned the Associated Press photo splashed above the fold of that day’s New York Times. The now-iconic photograph showed a police dog attacking a black teenager in Birmingham, Ala.

Birmingham had been aboil with civil rights demonstrations for weeks. Hundreds of black children had marched to protest segregation, and Police Commissioner Bull Connor ordered officers to disperse them with fire hoses and dogs.

“There’s no federal law we could pass to do anything about that picture in today’s Times. Well, there isn’t,” Kennedy snapped. “I mean, what law can you pass to do anything about police power in the community of Birmingham? There is nothing we can do.”

The tape of his meeting with 20 members of Americans for Democratic Action was released by the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston to coincide with Martin Luther King Day on Monday.

Tape found last month
Most recordings of other civil rights-related meetings in the Kennedy White House were released in the 1980s, but this one was discovered only in the last month among tapes captured on the White House recording system being examined for declassification, said Maura Porter, head of the library’s “Declassification Unit.”

“This is the only meeting that I know of where you have much more of a give-and-take, and I think he’s being terribly honest about what he would like to accomplish, but the reality is, he can’t do it at the pace that everyone would like,” Porter said.

The meeting came as Kennedy was under increasing pressure from the left to take a more forceful stand in favor of civil rights, at the same time he faced opposition from Southerners in his own party.

The photo of the lunging police dog perfectly epitomized the atmosphere at the time, said Horace Huntley, director of the Oral History Project at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

“The picture is very, very symbolic of exactly what was going on in Birmingham in that particular time and space,” Huntley said.

Feeling pressure
Kennedy plainly felt the pressure from the ADA to do more against segregation.

In prescient comments, he told the ADA members that things were “coming to a head” in the South and were likely to get “much worse,” but he lamented the federal government’s lack of legal authority to intervene in Birmingham.

But Huntley questioned Kennedy’s words, saying the federal government was well aware what was happening and could have done more.

The Kennedy administration had sent federal marshals to protect Freedom Riders demonstrating for civil rights in 1961, and to enforce the desegregation of the University of Mississippi in 1962.

Admits issue is ‘national crisis’
“Just look at what was taking place, and what simply was not being done. I don’t buy the statement that ‘my hands are tied, I can’t do anything about Birmingham, Alabama, and the South,’ because laws were being broken,” Huntley said.

On the tape, Kennedy moved on to other topics, such as taxes, education and foreign policy, but the conversation inevitably returned to civil rights.

When one ADA member urged him to speak to the nation about civil rights, Kennedy interrupted, saying his administration had “shoved and pushed.”

“I think we have worked hard on civil rights. I think it’s a national crisis,” Kennedy insisted.

Just over a month later, Kennedy did address the nation and announced he was sending new civil rights legislation to Congress. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed after his death.