Miller Center

John F. Kennedy: Domestic Affairs

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Kennedy's domestic legislative program, often described by the umbrella term of "New Frontier" legislation taken from his July 1960 acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention, faced an often difficult passage through Congress. With the Democratic majority in Congress razor-thin and many Southerners in his own party suspicious of the new President and his northeast establishment background, Kennedy was forced time and again to compromise on his legislative program.

Economic and Legislative Challenges

Kennedy took office in the depths of the fourth major recession since World War II. Business bankruptcies had reached the highest level since the 1930s, farm incomes had decreased 25 percent since 1951, and 5.5 million Americans were looking for work. Kennedy's response was a series of efforts designed to lower taxes, protect the unemployed, increase the minimum wage, and to focus on the business and housing sectors to stimulate the economy. Kennedy believed that such measures would begin an economic boom that would last until the late 1960s. His advisers thought it possible to "fine tune" the economy with a mix of fiscal and monetary measures; Kennedy accepted their advice and was impressed with their expertise, which seemed to work at the time. Partly as a result of the administration's efforts to pump money into domestic and military spending, the recession had faded by the end of Kennedy's first year in office. The President also proposed new social programs. These included federal aid to education, medical care for the elderly, urban mass transit, a Department of Urban Affairs, and regional development in Appalachia.

Lacking deep congressional support, however, Kennedy's programs encountered tough legislative sledding. He did manage an increase in the minimum wage, but a major medical program for the elderly was shot down. Attempts to cut taxes and broaden civil rights were watered down on Capitol Hill. The proposal for a Department of Urban Affairs was killed by southern Democrats who thought Kennedy would appoint an African-American as first secretary. The education bill foundered on the question of aid to parochial schools: Kennedy, as a Catholic, had to oppose such aid to maintain his credibility with the electorate. His successor, a Protestant, was under no such constraints and would pass a bill providing for aid to parochial schools. On the positive side of the ledger, the government undertook regional development in Appalachia, an initiative that would have a major impact over the next three decades in reducing poverty in the region.

Civil Rights

But by far the most volatile—and divisive—domestic issue of the day was civil rights. African-Americans were striving to reverse centuries of social and economic hardship, and activism against legalized racism was growing. This activism was troubling to many whites, particularly in the South. Kennedy's role—or lack of it—in this great crusade remains controversial. In short, he concentrated more on enforcing existing civil rights laws than on passing new ones. Moreover, he had to bow to the custom of "senatorial courtesy" and appoint federal judges in the South who were acceptable to southern Democratic senators. These judges were opposed to civil rights enforcement, and their record was much worse than that those judges appointed in the south by Republican President Eisenhower, who was under no such party constraints. On several occasions, Kennedy invoked some of the highest powers of his office to send troops to southern states that were refusing the racial integration of their schools.

In September 1962, a long-running effort by James Meredith, a black Mississippian and veteran of eight years in the U.S. Air Force, to enroll at the traditionally white University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) came to head. When the governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, defied federal court rulings allowing Meredith to enroll at the university, Kennedy, through his brother Robert, the attorney general, federalized the Mississippi National Guard and ordered an escort of federal marshals to accompany Meredith to the campus. Meredith finally enrolled on October 1, 1962, but not without a violent riot that took thousands of guardsmen and armed soldiers fifteen hours to quell. Hundreds were injured and two died.

During 1963, the civil rights struggle grew increasingly vocal and faced increasing violence. Led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., African-American activists had proclaimed their impatience with "tokenism and gradualism . . . We can't wait any longer." The persistence of the Freedom Riders seeking to desegregate buses in the South—in the face of personal peril—and a huge "March on Washington" in June 1963 at which King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech to an audience of a quarter of a million people, provided potent indications that the civil rights movement was not going to fade away and was, in fact, galvanizing. And when four children were killed that September in a racially motivated bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, Kennedy once again chose to intervene.

Kennedy's political strategy was to delay sending a civil rights bill to Congress until his second term, when he could afford to split his party and pick up the backing of moderate Republicans to pass the measure. He felt that if he did this in his first term, the rest of his program would suffer. However, African-Americans remained unconvinced of the political maneuvering and insisted on immediate action to protect their rights. Toward the end of 1963, Kennedy finally submitted a civil rights bill, which became law after his death. In a televised speech announcing his decision, he observed that the grandchildren of the slaves freed by Lincoln "are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice."

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

David Coleman

Professor Coleman is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia and Chair of the Presidential Recordings Program, overseeing the John F. Kennedy project, at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. His writings include:

Real-World Nuclear Deterrence: The Making of International Strategy (Co-authored with Joseph Siracusa, Praeger Security International, 2006)

Depression to Cold War: A History of America from Herbert Hoover to Ronald Reagan (Co-authored with Joseph Siracusa, Praeger Publishers, 2002)

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