The President Takes a Stand: Kennedy’s Report to the American People on Civil Rights
Topic: President Kennedy's June 11, 1963 Report to the American People on Civil Rights; Analyzing a Persuasive Speech
Grade Level: 5 - 8
Time Required: 3 class periods with additional time for writing and editing
When President Kennedy delivered his June 11, 1963 Report to the American People on Civil Rights, he addressed a divided country. Many Americans still supported segregation and were reluctant to acknowledge racial injustice. However, months of escalating conflict that included massive demonstrations, police repression, and even deaths of activists and other citizens, compelled Kennedy to take a clear stand on the issue. In this landmark speech on civil rights, Kennedy presented the case for why racial discrimination had no place in American law. He also announced his plans to introduce an omnibus civil rights bill to Congress.
The speech is historically significant for several reasons. It was Kennedy’s strongest public statement to the country (and the rest of the world) on civil rights. Also, historians consider it a ground-breaking speech because Kennedy framed racial injustice as a moral or ethical issue. He challenged Americans to ask themselves, how do we want to be treated? What is the right way to behave towards others in a country founded on equality? Finally, the speech was a call to action; Kennedy challenged individuals to act, to treat each other with respect in their daily lives.
By studying this historic non-fiction text, students learn how a president demonstrates leadership through ideas, words, and deeds. Students can analyze the text as a persuasive speech and identify the arguments Kennedy used to try to convince the nation that all Americans deserve equal treatment regardless of race.
Essential Question: How does a president show leadership through ideas, words, and deeds? What tools does a president use to try to persuade the public on a controversial issue?
In this lesson, students analyze President Kennedy’s June 11, 1963 Report to the American People on Civil Rights as a persuasive speech. They identify the main idea of the speech, summarize sections of the text, and describe the arguments President Kennedy used to communicate his message. They also reflect on how he demonstrated leadership through his ideas, words, and deeds. As assessment, they write an essay describing the main idea of the speech and the arguments Kennedy used to try to persuade the country to pass civil rights legislation.
While the address has challenging vocabulary for elementary and some middle school students, it is an historically significant non-fiction text with rich possibilities for developing language arts skills.
Connections to Curricula (Standards)
National History Standards
Standard 1: Historical Comprehension
Standard 3: Historical Analysis and Interpretation
US History Era 9
Standard 4: The struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties.
Massachusetts History and Social Studies Curriculum Frameworks
Grade 3: Civics and Government
Give examples of the different ways people in a community can influence their local government.
Grade 5: Observe and identify details in cartoons, photographs, charts, and graphs relating to an historical narrative.
Common Core State Standards: Anchor Standards for Grades K-12
English Language Arts, Reading Standard 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
English Language Arts, Reading Standard 2: Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
English Language Arts, Reading Standard 10: Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.
English Language Arts, Writing Standard 2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization and analysis of content.
English Language Arts, Writing Standard 4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
English Language Arts, Writing Standard 9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis reflection, and research.
English Language Arts Standards, History/Social Studies, Grades 6-8, Standard 1: Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.
English Language Arts Standards, History/Social Studies, Grades 6-8, Standard 6: Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author’s point of view or purpose.
- Learn that on June 11, 1963, President Kennedy’s gave an historic speech on civil rights.
- Summarize a section of the speech.
- Determine the main idea of the speech and describe the arguments President Kennedy used to communicate his message.
- Identify supporting reasons and evidence for Kennedy’s arguments.
- Reflect on how Kennedy demonstrated leadership through ideas, words, and deeds.
- Sit-in: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Pinkney: A picture book describing the first sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina and its impact on the civil rights movement (optional).
- Universal International News on the events of June 11, 1963: News reel about the integration of the University of Alabama and Kennedy’s speech on civil rights. (Time: 1:45)
- June 11, 1963 Report to the American People on Civil Rights: Video and transcript of President Kennedy’s speech. (Time: 13:41)
- Report to the American People on Civil Rights: Transcript of speech for students.
- Report to the American People on Civil Rights by section: Transcript of speech, separated into sections for small group work.
- Section Summary and Arguments (Handout for students)
- Template for Illustration and Quote (Handout for students)
- Glossary for students. (Handout)
- Suggested Responses to Graphic Organizer (For teacher use)
- Suggested Arguments with Reasons and Evidence (For teacher use)
- Press Release from Jackie Robinson, June 13, 1963: Describes Robinson’s positive response to Kennedy’s June 11, 1963 speech.
- Time Life Production television spots on civil rights, October 10, 1963: Video of Lena Horne, Jackie Robinson and civic leaders promoting support of civil rights for all. (Time: 4:34)
- Responses to the President’s speech and actions in Alabama: A memo to Assistant Press Secretary Andrew Hatcher with a pro/con count of letters and telegrams sent to the White House from June 11 to June 14.
- Chart paper or White Board/Bulletin Board.
Historical Background and Context
After narrowly defeating Richard M. Nixon in the 1960 election, John F. Kennedy was cautious in his approach to civil rights. He was reluctant to lose southern support for legislation on many fronts by pushing too hard on civil rights legislation. By the spring of 1963, Kennedy's attention became increasingly focused on civil rights. The 1963 Birmingham Campaign in Alabama made national news with images of children attacked by dogs and blasted with high pressure fire hoses. The growing number and size of civil rights demonstrations, and the violent backlash from segregationists compelled the president to take direct action and speed up introduction of civil rights legislation.
On June 11, 1963, Kennedy took a bold stand. Earlier that day, Alabama Governor George Wallace had attempted to block two African-American students from entering the University of Alabama. The president federalized the Alabama National Guard and the governor finally stepped aside, allowing the students to enter the University. That evening, the president delivered an historic message: segregation and other forms of racial injustice must end and he would introduce legislation to work toward that goal.
The decision to make a speech that evening was a sudden one. Although civil rights legislation had been in the works for several weeks, it was still in process. Theodore “Ted” Sorensen, President Kennedy's special counsel and primary speechwriter, did not start a first draft of the speech until that afternoon. An hour before the speech, President Kennedy, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall and Sorensen were assembling and rewriting parts of the speech, and the president did not have a completed version when he sat down in front of the television camera at 8:00 p.m. He extemporized the concluding paragraphs of the speech.
In his speech, the president responded to the threats of violence and obstruction of justice on the University of Alabama campus following desegregation attempts, explaining that the United States was founded on the principle that all men are created equal and thus, all American students are entitled to attend public educational institutions, regardless of race. He addressed discrimination in education, public accommodations, and voting rights. The president declared that “it ought to be possible, in short, for every American to enjoy the privileges of being American without regard to his race or his color.” The president made it clear that the issue of civil rights affected the country as a whole; it was not limited to one city or one region.
The president asked Congress to enact legislation protecting all Americans’ voting rights, legal standing, educational opportunities, and access to public facilities, but recognized that legislation alone could not solve the country's problems concerning race relations. He stated that “it is time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives.”
Part 1: Setting the Context
Note: This lesson works well as part of a unit on the civil rights movement so that students have been introduced to the historical context of that time.
Optional introduction for younger students: If you are introducing elementary students to the topic for the first time, read aloud Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Pinkney to help introduce the historical context of the civil rights movement. After discussing the book, focus students’ attention on the page with the text, “When President John F. Kennedy got a taste of SNCC’s integration, he didn’t sit in; he stepped in! On June 11, 1963, the president went on TV. He urged Americans to treat each other fairly. He then told Congress to take action against segregation. This became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
Suggested questions for discussion:
- Why do you think President Kennedy chose to make a speech at this moment in time?
- Why was it important for President Kennedy to take a stand?
- How could he, as president, make a difference at that time? What impact might his speech have?
- What arguments might he have used to convince the country that everyone should be treated equally under the law? Write student ideas about the last question on chart paper.
For older and younger students: Share key points from the Historical Background provided in this lesson plan:
- Kennedy had been cautious about civil rights because it had been a very close election and he wanted to keep the support of as many people and legislators as possible.
- Conflict over integration and civil rights had been escalating through the spring of 1963. In May in Birmingham, Alabama, thousands of protestors marched for equal rights and faced a fierce police response. Young people were arrested and jailed, police dogs frightened and harmed demonstrators, and many protesters were injured. (For a visual image of the police response, see photographs from newspapers in The Confrontation section of Project C.)
- On June 11, George Wallace, the Governor of Alabama tried to block two African American students from entering the University of Alabama. The president called in the National Guard and the governor stepped aside. The president informed the country of the event in a speech on radio and television during which he explained why it was so important for all Americans to be treated fairly and have equal rights and privileges. He announced that he would be introducing a law that would end segregation in public places, require schools to become desegregated, and protect people’s right to vote. (View a news reel on the events of June 11, 1963 in The Showdown section of The Integration of the University of Alabama.)
Part II: Summarizing the Speech and Identifying the Arguments
- Provide a copy of the entire Report to the American People on Civil Rights to each student. Explain that students will have the opportunity to examine this historic speech, Kennedy’s strongest statement to the American people on civil rights. At the time, the American people did not all agree about segregation and other issues related to race. Many Americans wanted to keep racial segregation, and others thought President Kennedy had not taken enough action to address racial injustice. Students will work together to become familiar with the speech. At the end of the process, they will be able to describe arguments that President Kennedy used to convince the American people that racial discrimination was wrong and that the country needed to pass a law to make sure people of all races had equal rights.
- Explain that you have divided the speech into sections and that they will work in groups to become experts on one of the sections. Divide students into nine groups, each group will analyze one section of the speech. Distribute the graphic organizer. First, their group will work together to make sure they understand the vocabulary in their section. They will then write a summary and identify the main arguments in their text.
- Use the first section of the speech to demonstrate how to complete the graphic organizer. See Suggested Responses for Graphic Organizer for sample summaries and examples of main arguments. These are only suggestions. There are many possible ways to summarize each section and several different ways to describe the main arguments.
- Have students work together to complete the graphic organizer. Distribute one section of the speech to each group, providing copies of the section to each person in the group. Have students locate their section in the larger speech. Guide them to consult the Glossary handout and dictionaries to make sure they understand the vocabulary in their section. In addition to summarizing the text, each group should identify one or two arguments that Kennedy used in the text. Check each group’s work before convening the whole group to share their findings.
- In chronological order by section, have a reporter from each group share the summary and main arguments of each section. By hearing a summary of each section, students will get a preview of the speech. Record the arguments on chart paper or white board.
- Review the list of arguments generated by the small groups. As a class, have students edit the list, combining arguments that are similar and making sure the language is clear. Once you have decided on a final list, number each argument and post it on a wall in the classroom.
Possible arguments might include:
- Everyone should be able to go to public places like movie theaters and restaurants regardless of skin color.
- Education is not equal for everyone. Every student has the right to a good education.
- America stands for freedom and equality.
- We need new laws to make sure people are treated fairly.
- People need to take action in their daily lives to end discrimination. Explain that students will be listening to the entire speech to see how Kennedy used reasons and evidence to support each of his arguments.
Part IV: Persuading the public
- Based on information from these class sessions, ask students to describe Kennedy’s audience. To whom was he speaking? How would the speech be received? How did Americans feel about segregation and civil rights? (Many Americans did not agree with Kennedy. They supported segregation and were afraid of change.) To make his speech effective, Kennedy (and his speechwriters) had to use convincing arguments. He also had to make sure he had reasons and evidence to support his arguments.
- Have students follow their transcript of the speech as they listen to President Kennedy’s speech located in The Address section of the 1963: The Struggle for Civil Rights website. Have them highlight quotes they think are particularly convincing.
- Ask students to share sentences or excerpts that they think are particularly convincing or important. Have each student select an excerpt of the speech and illustrate it. They should include the quote below the illustration.
- Have students place their illustrations and quotes under the argument they think it best supports. As a class, make sure the quotes are supporting the designated argument (many quotes can support more than one argument.) If there are arguments that remain “unsupported,” challenge students to find quotes they can add so that every argument has a convincing reason or piece of evidence to support it. (To view examples of quotes to support each argument, see Examples of Supporting Evidence.)
Part V: Jackie Robinson Speaks Out
- Introduce the document, “Jackie Robinson Says He Would Cast His Ballot for Kennedy” which describes the impact of the June 11th speech on Robinson. The document is one of several responses to Kennedy’s speech that can be found under Public Opinion in The Address section of the 1963: The Struggle for Civil Rights website.
- About Jackie Robinson: Many students may be familiar with Jackie Robinson as the first African-American baseball player to play in the major leagues. In addition to breaking the color barrier in baseball and achieving success in that sport, Robinson became a successful businessman and a civil rights advocate, serving on the board of directors of the NAACP. Although he had campaigned for Nixon in 1960 and had been critical of President Kennedy, he stated, “The Presidential statement on the color question is one of the finest declarations ever issued in the cause of human rights.”
Suggested questions for discussion:
- What do you know about Jackie Robinson? (Provide information as need from above.)
- What is the date of the document? When was it published? (It is dated June 13, 1963, two days after Kennedy delivered the speech.) • How did the president’s speech affect Robinson? (He admired Kennedy for his leadership and his stand on the issue. It convinced him to support Kennedy.)
- What might he have done differently in the past? (He did not support Kennedy in 1960; he campaigned for Nixon.)
- How does Robinson describe the president’s speech? (“The Presidential statement on the color question is one of the finest declarations ever issued in the cause of human rights.”)
- Have students identify words and phrases from the press release that describe the president’s speech (i.e. “inspired leadership,” “finest declarations ever issued in the cause of human rights,” “sincerity”). Ask students if they agree with Robinson and discuss what they liked about the speech. Draw on the following questions for further discussion or have students write their response as an assessment: What made it an effective speech? Are there elements of the speech that are not effective? Would the speech convince a variety of listeners? How did Kennedy demonstrate leadership through his ideas, words, and deeds?
- Students can view film footage of Jackie Robinson speaking out for civil rights in The Bill section of 1963: The Struggle for Civil Rights. (It is entitled Civil Rights and You in the Public Opinion section.) The footage is one of several television and radio spots by Time Life Productions to promote support for civil rights legislation.
Have students write an essay on the Report to the American People on Civil Rights as a persuasive speech. The essay should include an introductory paragraph describing the main idea of the speech. It should also include three arguments and quotes to show how Kennedy used reasons and evidence to support his ideas. In the conclusion, students should reflect on how Kennedy demonstrated leadership through his words and ideas.
Sharing the story (Recommended for younger students.)
Compile students’ illustrations and quotes into a picture book. Have them write an introduction and conclusion, providing historical information on the speech. Have them present information on the speech and perform a reading of the quotes to another class or at a gathering for parents. How did people respond? Have students examine an historical document to learn about responses sent to the White House after the speech. Project the document, Response to the Speech, from the 1963: The Struggle for Civil Rights website, or distribute copies. (It is under Public Opinion in the The Address section.)
Possible questions for discussion:
- What is a telegram?
- What does the letterhead tell you?
- What is the date of the document?
- What is the purpose of the document?
- What do you think PRO and CON mean?
- What is being counted?
- What information does the document give about responses to the speech?
- Does anything surprise you about the document?
- What else would you want to know about the document?
- How might you find the answers to your questions?
According to the document, the White House received about four times as many positive responses to the speech as negative. We cannot assume this reflects the response of the entire country, but the opinions of people who felt strongly enough to contact the White House. Explore the letters and telegrams in the Public Opinion section reflecting individual responses.
Bringing it into today (Recommended for older students.)
Have students analyze President Obama’s speech on immigration reform, delivered on June 11, 2013, fifty years after Kennedy’s historic speech on civil rights. What is the main idea of the speech? What arguments does Obama use to support the main idea? Compare and contrast the speech to the Report to the American People on Civil Rights. (Challenge students to find similar language in the two speeches. For example, Obama states, “We owe it to America to do better. We owe it to the DREAMers to do better. We owe it to the young people like Tolu and Diego Sanchez, who’s with us here today.” Kennedy states, “I think we owe them and ourselves a better country.”)
What happened next? (Recommended for older students.)
Have students explore The Bill section of 1963: The Struggle for Civil Rights to find out more about the legislation Kennedy proposed. The introductory essay tells the story the Civil Rights Act: how it was introduced, the strategies used to gain support, and how it was signed into law. In The Challenge section of The Bill, students can view a photograph of President Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964. They can see the bill by clicking on The Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Bibliography for Students
Sit-in: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Pinkney, New York and Boston, Little, Brown and Company, 2010.
See the Teachers section of the website for a complete bibliography for young readers.