An Unfinished Agenda: President Kennedy and Civil Rights, 60 Years Later

Eric H. Holder, Jr.
11 min readJun 12, 2023

This afternoon, we commemorate an extraordinary and courageous speech — in my view, one of President Kennedy’s most significant. Every single word rings with conviction and moral clarity, making the case and pointing the way toward what would become the signature achievements of the Civil Rights Era.

But the story of that speech — and of that day, June 11, 1963 — did not begin with President Kennedy himself, nor with Attorney General Robert Kennedy, nor anyone else in the Administration. It began, in a sense, with two brave students named James Hood and Vivian Malone.

Now… as I look around this crowd, I realize that not everyone here was alive in 1963. But I can assure you that those of us who lived through that consequential year will never forget it. From Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, in May, to the Dream that impelled his March on Washington, in August; from the iconic “Strategy for Peace” that President Kennedy described at American University, just one day before his address on civil rights, to his inspiring trip to Berlin later that same month; from the March on Washington in August; to the four young black girls murdered as a result of the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, in September, to that dark November day in Dallas that forever changed the fabric of this nation — 1963 was a year of hard-won triumph and unimaginable tragedy.

This was the context in which James Hood and Vivian Malone stepped into history. This was the raucous, unsettled America they knew.

But of course making history was the last thing on their minds; all James and Vivian wanted to do was go to school. Both were exceptional students. Both had been fighting for well over a year — first with university officials and then in court — for the right to apply and enroll, like any other in state qualified resident, at the University of Alabama.

Along the way, both endured threats and harassment simply for refusing to concede their most basic rights — rights that were eventually vindicated in court and enforced by the United States Department of Justice.

We all know what happened next: Alabama Governor George Wallace refused to back down, staging his infamous “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door.” The nation watched as Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach peacefully escorted James and Vivian onto campus. They enrolled. And, in the Oval Office, President Kennedy prepared to address the nation.

When the American people tuned in that night, they witnessed something extraordinary: the President of the United States speaking forcefully — from the heart and, at significant times, extemporaneously — about what he described as both “a domestic crisis” that transcended politics and “a moral issue” that is “as old as the scriptures and […] as clear as the American Constitution.”

He went on:

“If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?”

President Kennedy knew that the promise of America, the promise of the New Deal, including the Social Security Act, had largely gone unrealized for people of color — and that this country’s chronic failure to pass an anti-lynching law, along with widespread economic and electoral discrimination, had set the stage for a widespread and vicious American apartheid.

By 1963, he was more determined than ever to dismantle it: “Those who do nothing,” he told the American people that night, “are inviting shame as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right as well as reality.”

Then, on live TV, the President did something truly remarkable.

Having read most of his speech from the prepared text in front of him, he discarded the ending of his remarks, looked directly into the camera, and spoke extemporaneously — without consulting his notes or breaking eye contact — for two full minutes. You can see the moment that it happens; you can hear the passion and conviction in his voice.

“I am asking for your help,” he said, “in making it easier for us to move ahead and to provide the kind of equality of treatment which we would want ourselves; to give a chance for every child to be educated to the limit of his talents.”

Even at the time — as a 12-year-old kid — this made a deep and lasting impression on me.

Believe it or not, I remember watching all of this unfold on television that night: on a tiny black-and-white screen in the basement of our family home in Queens, New York City. The newsreel images of James and Vivian; the forthright and full-throated power of the speech of a man who remains a hero to me to this day. Even then, I found his words inspiring and unforgettable; it felt almost like he was speaking directly to — and about — me.

How extraordinary, and how rare, for a President of the United States to connect so deeply — on a heart-to-heart level — with someone whose experience of the world could hardly be more different and unformed.

Sitting in front of the TV that night, I never could have imagined that I — a Black kid from Queens — would someday be entrusted with the office that Robert Kennedy once held. Let alone that, long after Vivian became the first African-American graduate of the University of Alabama — the first — I would meet — and later marry — a brilliant, beautiful doctor named Sharon Malone.

… Who happened to be Vivian’s younger sister, making Vivian my sister-in-law.

But of course we cannot celebrate the triumph of June 11th — a day of hope, triumph, tactical brilliance, and unprecedented commitment — without also confronting the shock and grief that greeted us the very next morning: when America awoke to the news that, just a few hours after President Kennedy finished speaking, the civil rights leader Medgar Evers had been shot in the back in his driveway in Jackson, Mississippi.

He died at the local hospital a short time later, having initially been turned away — denied treatment, because of his race. He was only 37 years old.

There is more. The same day that Medger Evers died, Fannie Lou Hamer, after being viciously beaten in a Mississippi jail for engaging in voter registration activities, was released from jail with injuries that would ultimately shorten her life.

Once-unthinkable progress… tempered by unspeakable tragedies.

That’s the story of June 11th. It’s the story of 1963, writ large — a year of exhilarating highs and existential lows. More broadly, it’s the story of not just the Kennedy era, but of the American experiment itself: a nation founded on dissent and forged through revolution, born of competing and contradictory visions for how we would govern ourselves, what we would stand for, which voices would be heard and who we—as a people—might aspire to become.

It has been said that “being president doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are.” We have seen this in graphic ways with our penultimate president. In my view, June 11, 1963 was the day—more, perhaps, than any other—that revealed John F. Kennedy as the person, and the President, we know and revere today: complicated and human, like the rest of us, but uncommonly determined, decisive, wise and compassionate, with an exceptional vision for this country and a righteous fire in his veins.

Still, as much as June 11th revealed about the man in the Oval Office, it reveals even more about the nation that elected him. And I say reveals in the present tense, because it’s hard not to feel — even 60 years later — that this moment in history is in direct conversation with our own.

Out of that day grew legislation that transformed the nation. By calling to end segregation, ban employment discrimination, and safeguard the right to vote, President Kennedy outlined what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — and also paved the way for the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, and other vital and much needed reforms.

For me, it’s painful even now to see those iconic photographs of signing ceremonies for each of these landmark laws. Because the only person missing from each photo is the one who did more than anyone to make them possible; who gave his life, and whose memory brings me here to this place that is his and impels us onward even today.

… Which brings me to the most pivotal question before us this afternoon:

Where are we today?

If President Kennedy had lived, in the words of his brother, “to comb gray hair,” would he be satisfied with how far we have come?

Sixty long years after the Stand in the Schoolhouse Door and that great call to arms, is this nation — are we, as a people — what he envisioned and expected?

It’s true that, in ways big and small, this country has made undeniable progress. One of my grandmothers was born in 1870; my family is only two generations removed from slavery. Yet I, a son of immigrants from Barbados, was afforded the breathtaking opportunity to serve my country as the 82nd Attorney General of the United States. If that alone isn’t a testament to the scale of change that is possible when leaders like John Kennedy and so called ordinary people like Vivian put their shoulders to the wheel of history, I don’t know what is.

The decision by the Supreme Court yesterday — yet another case centered in Alabama — is another indicator of progress based on the words President Kennedy spoke in 1963. Vivian Malone was present on the day the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law and went on to head the Voter Education Project. President Kennedy’s words and actions 60 years ago put her in a position to impact the nation then and all of us even today. Yesterday, June 8, 2023, because of the Supreme Court decision, was a day for Vivian especially.

But “progress” is not a goal; it is a measure of commitment, a marker in time. And it must be built on the foundation of hard truth. We don’t work for “progress”. We struggle for the end states of equality and justice.

Today, the hard truth is that — while this country has taken meaningful steps forward — we can no longer be content with this notion of stuttering, incremental “progress.” The hard truth is that — on major questions of race, policing, justice, education, democracy, and equality under law — “progress” too often masks the reality that we are still mired in the struggles of a bygone century.

How much longer must we wait to reach that truly free and equitable end state? How much further must we march to see the Promised Land?

How distant remains that elusive ideal that draws immigrants to our shores? How near is the “more perfect Union” our Founders envisioned… and left us the humble tools to create together?

My friends: this occasion is not just a time to look back, but to set a course for the future.

“Progress” must not become an excuse for neglecting, in President Kennedy’s words, to “act boldly… recognizing right as well as reality.”

And we can no longer afford to be patient!

In the 1980s, a reporter asked the great James Baldwin about the pace of change since the Civil Rights Era.

“What is it you wanted me to reconcile myself to?” he replied. “I was born here, almost 60 years ago. I’m not going to live another 60 years. You always told me ‘It takes time.’ It’s taken my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncle’s time, my brothers’ and my sisters’ time. How much time do you want for your progress?”

Like James Baldwin, Vivian was only 63 years old when she passed away — much too soon, in 2005. I only wish you could have known her, and that we all could have heard from her, instead of from me, this afternoon.

Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dr. King were afforded even fewer fleeting years on this Earth.

And it has now been six decades since we lost President Kennedy — since that shattering news from Dealey Plaza marked not just a personal tragedy and a national trauma, but a hinge point in world history.

Yes, progress takes time.

But it has taken Medgar’s time… and Martin’s… and Fannie Lou’s ….. and Malcolm’s.

It has taken Jack’s time… and Bobby’s… and Teddy’s.

It has taken Vivian’s time. And my father’s. And my grandfather’s. It has taken 72 long years of my time — and how many of yours?

So today, let us ask again: “how much time do you need for your progress?”

We are here to celebrate President Kennedy: to draw inspiration from the courage and conviction that he showed 60 years ago — and to renew that clarion call, that vision, of what we can become.

But we should also leave this place with James Baldwin’s righteous impatience ringing in our ears. Because what matters is not what the events of June 11, 1963 signify in the great sweep of history; what matters is how we can make real — here and now, in our time — that which President Kennedy spoke about on that distant summer evening, almost a lifetime ago.

In themselves, on their own, days like June 11th — speeches like the one we commemorate today — do not transform the shape of our society. At least not overnight… and for Medgar Evers, who listened to the speech on the radio, even “overnight” would have been too late.

But it is in these extraordinary moments — these complex and contradictory chapters in the life of our nation — that America’s character is revealed, and our future determined.

After all: stretching out before President Kennedy — on that consequential night 60 years ago — was a future that would hold much more than the chance for students like James and Vivian to earn a degree.

Ahead lay more marches and sit-ins, boycotts and protests, and a Mississippi Freedom Summer that claimed the lives of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney all of which built the strength of a national movement — paving the way for yet more critical policy changes and reforms.

Ahead lay Dr. King’s vision of the Mountaintop, and the realization of parts of the Dream that he, like President Kennedy and so many others, would not live to see.

Ahead lay years of struggle, immeasurable loss, and tremendous sorrow.

But ahead, too, lay the promise of a brighter dawn; the fulfillment of those aspirations set forth in our founding documents; and so many remarkable steps forward in our nation’s ongoing journey — toward equal rights and equal opportunity — along a path that still stretches beyond the horizon.

I hope you, like me, will leave this hallowed place later today feeling inspired… and impatient.

Be impatient. Be very impatient. Do not be satisfied with “progress”.

I look to each of you — every single person in this room — for leadership and moral courage worthy of this great institution’s namesake.

Most of all, I thank you — for all that you do, every day, to keep President Kennedy’s vision and legacy alive, and for the honor of being here this afternoon.



Eric H. Holder, Jr.

82nd Attorney General of the United States. Chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.