Miller Center

John F. Kennedy: The American Franchise

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During the Kennedy years, some groups that had formerly been discriminated against made great breakthroughs in realizing the American Dream. For others, the early 1960s proved to be another disappointing era.

President Kennedy initiated the planning for a "War on Poverty" in 1963, after reading an article by noted social commentator Michael Harrington entitled, "The Other America." Harrington detailed the plight of the poor and Kennedy ordered his economic advisers to consider new measures to deal with the one-fifth of the nation that had incomes below the poverty line. After Kennedy's death, President Lyndon B. Johnson moved to pick up Kennedy's poverty program, but also to massively expand it and elevate it in the priorities of his administration's domestic agenda.

In targeting poverty in America, Kennedy was motivated by more than a sense of "right" or responsibility (although those motivations arguably were important). In improving the lot of poor, southern whites—particularly in Appalachia and the rural South—Kennedy hoped to win support of southern members of Congress. By bringing these people into the mainstream, Kennedy also hoped to increase the Democratic electorate in the southern and border states and stave off a Republican challenge to the party allegiance of white voters.

Changing Attitudes toward Religion

The 1960 election had thrust religion once again into the political debate. As a Catholic—the first ever to win the presidency—Kennedy implicitly challenged the religious status quo in American political life.

The Kennedy years marked the advancement of Jews into high positions in government. Kennedy appointed Jews to his cabinet and to the federal courts, including the Supreme Court; some became close White House advisers. These years also signaled the beginning of the end of the routine exclusion of Jews from high corporate positions, country-club memberships, and exclusive residential neighborhoods, as well as the end of quotas on Jewish admissions to selective colleges and universities. It was no coincidence that many of Kennedy's most fervent backers were liberal Jewish intellectuals, particularly in the universities, and they flocked to be part of the Kennedy administration or serve as outside policy advisers.

Kennedy also gained much political support from his Roman Catholic co-religionists. Catholic votes for the Democratic ticket jumped with Kennedy running for office. But some of this vote was a natural "rebound" after Catholic defections to Eisenhower; had Kennedy not been Catholic, it is arguable that he still would have won much of this vote. Kennedy's election effectively removed the taint of "dual loyalty" which falsely claimed that Catholics owed an allegiance—and at times a primary allegiance—to the Pope in Rome. His family's good looks and culture broke stereotypes about Catholic ethnic groups consisting of uncultured and ignorant peasants. Like the Jews, Catholics in the second, third, and fourth generations were rapidly moving up in American society, and moving out from urban areas to the more affluent suburbs.

Status of African-Americans

African-Americans were "the people left behind": crowded into poorer neighborhoods, discriminated against, and actively prevented from obtaining good educations or jobs, victimized by criminals on the streets (and by unscrupulous merchants in stores), unprotected by the law or government. Kennedy had made many promises during the 1960 that he would improve the lot of African-Americans.

As President, however, he moved slowly in this area. By distancing himself from civil rights leaders and only grudgingly pushing the federal government to protect civil rights workers, the Kennedy administration sent a signal to Southern segregationists that they could effectively defy the laws of the land. Kennedy promised during his election campaign to wipe out "with the stroke of a pen" discrimination in public housing by issuing executive orders. After two years of delay, civil rights activists began sending pens to the White House to prod Kennedy to act. He eventually signed an order banning racial discrimination in wages by federal contractors, but many observers remained disappointed in Kennedy's failure to act with more vigor to redress Civil Rights injustices.

Race Relations

The early 1960s political landscape was overwhelmingly white and middle class, a demograhic that did not reflect accurately the breadth of American society. Race remained the great social, cultural, and economic divide. Puerto Ricans had moved into New York, Cuban exiles were flooding Miami, and Mexicans had been arriving in San Diego and Los Angeles for decades. But in absolute numbers and percentage, Hispanic-Americans formed a negligible part of the population (perhaps 2 percent). They were an even smaller portion of the electorate and commanded little or no attention from national policymakers.

The "model minority" group was Asian: the Japanese-Americans on the West Coast and the Chinese-Americans on both coasts. The claim that there was "no juvenile delinquency" in their close-knit communities was a myth, but it symbolized a belief in stereotypes, shared by most Americans, that any racial and ethnic group could "make it" with hard work and the right attitude. The implicit contrast, of course, was with African-Americans, particularly the "underclass" in the large cities. Lost in the contrast was the fact that there were poor Asian families, as well as black "strivers" who had succeeded in making it into the middle class—and higher. These different stereotypes would later create racial tensions between Asian ethnic groups and African-Americans. During the Kennedy years, there was essentially no national focus on issues involving Asian-Americans, in part because these communities sought little government assistance or interference.

Advancement of Women

Reflecting the gender imbalance so notable in the Arthurian legend of Camelot with which it was later often associated (for different reasons), the Kennedy presidency failed to provide equal opportunity for women. During the Kennedy years, women continued to marry early, have children early, and defer to the career demands of the men in their lives. This seemed particularly true for the circle of high officials in the Kennedy administration. Kennedy's "New Frontiersmen" were just that—for the most part men—and women made few gains in federal office during his years in office. Most women who worked in politics in the New Frontier were on the fringes and in subordinate roles. The unmarried women took these roles as a prelude to their later careers as wives; the wives for the most part took on the roles of mothers and hostesses. Even though birth control pills, a factor usually identified as a prime catalyst for the gains of the women's movement, were introduced in the early 1960s, serious challenges to the subordinate status of women did not come until later in the decade.

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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