In this Aug. 28, 1963 file photo, President Kennedy stands with a group of leaders of the March on Washington at the White House in Washington. From second left are Whitney Young, National Urban League; Dr. Martin Luther King, Christian Leadership Conference; John Lewis, Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, partially obscured; Rabbi Joachim Prinz, American Jewish Congress; Dr. Eugene P. Donnaly, National Council of Churches; A. Philip Randolph, AFL-CIO vice president; Kennedy; Walter Reuther, United Auto Workers; Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, partially obscured, and Roy Wilkins, NAACP. (AP Photo/File)
As president, Kennedy’s top priority was foreign policy. There were enormous Cold War challenges — from the Soviet Union and Vietnam to Cuba, site of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and of a crisis over Soviet missiles that threatened to trigger nuclear war.
Meanwhile, at home, the boiling civil rights movement could not be ignored.
“Freedom Riders” seeking to integrate Southern bus lines were mercilessly beaten. Whites rioted to prevent the Black student James Meredith from enrolling at the University of Mississippi; two people were killed after Kennedy sent in troops to ensure Meredith’s admission.
In Birmingham, Ala., police loosed clubs, dogs and fire hoses on peaceful protesters, and a church bombing killed four Black girls. Images of the violence shamed America before the world.
As blood flowed, Kennedy moved cautiously toward civil rights legislation.