Fifty-seven years ago on June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivered an impromptu Report to the American People on Civil Rights, broadcast on both radio and television. This speech, while in part a reaction to riots in Birmingham, Alabama, marked the beginning of a dramatic shift in the president’s response to the civil rights movement. For him, no longer was this national issue a passing interest; it had a new focus and presidential commitment to set change in motion. President Kennedy sought much needed help from Martin Luther King Jr., and launched an appeal for national unity as resistance to desegregation fueled social unrest.
On the anniversary of this powerful speech, President Kennedy’s words remain ever more striking as they eerily magnify the unresolved civil rights legacies of that decade with the issues of racial injustice we continue to face today. The current outcry spilling across the nation and world are in reaction to yet another brutal and senseless murder of an African American, and the residual impact of a four-hundred-year-old legacy of systemic racial inequality.
President Kennedy’s words on June 11, 1963, defined equal rights as intrinsic human rights, declaring that it is an individual and collective moral duty to provide equality to African Americans. These words harnessed inspiration and the call for action from his inaugural Ask Not address and contrast with the state of the nation today. While progress has been made over the last six decades, change has been slow and gradual, and there is much left to be done. The last two weeks of peaceful protests across the country and around the world have awakened us, touched raw nerves and revealed unhealed wounds. They have inspired a world-wide movement to listen, engage, and confront the unspoken biases that have kept us apart.
Today, we at The Sixth Floor Museum re-dedicate ourselves to building stronger civic and community engagement for Dallas, and our fellow citizens. We pledge to hear, to listen to you and to our community. We pledge to offer a safe and open forum for discussion and examination of our shared and unshared history and the legacies of civil rights and social injustices today.
The commitment of The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza is to ensure that every aspect of our internal operational practices, our external forms of educational outreach, and our public programming and community engagement activities, all pave the path for social justice.
This is our commitment to building and maintaining a diverse, equitable, accessible and inclusive museum for one and for all.
Nicola Longford, CEO + Board + Staff
By Dr. W. Marvin Dulaney, Associate Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Texas, Arlington
Fifty years ago, on April 4th, the civil rights movement ended. That was the day that James Earl Ray assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis, Tennessee and ended Dr. King’s larger- than-life role in and influence on the civil rights movement.
Photo credit: Yoichi Okamoto/LBJ Presidential Library and Museum
Of course, some historians, as well as others, argue that the civil rights movement ended before Dr. King’s assassination. They cite the backlash that the movement endured after Stokely Carmichael, the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), made his infamous “Black Power” speech in Greenwood, Mississippi during the “March Against Fear” in 1966. Dr. King was on the stage with Carmichael when he gave the speech and tried to change the shouts by the crowd from “Black Power” to “Freedom Now,” but failed. “Black Power” became the new slogan of the movement and it alienated many whites who supported and participated in the movement as well as many of the foundations and organizations that provided financial support to the movement. Opponents of the “Black Power” slogan equated it with black violence against whites. Given the ongoing use of violence by whites against blacks to maintain white power and white supremacy, it was logical for the opponents of Black Power to conclude that the movement would evolve to their worst fear. But they were wrong.
Several of Dr. King’s biographers also argue that the movement ended in April 1967 when Dr. King gave his famous “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” speech at Riverside Baptist Church in New York opposing the war in Vietnam. In the speech, Dr. King indicted the United States as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” and noted that the U.S. government sent young black, brown and poor men to Vietnam to fight in an imperialistic war, but did nothing to improve their lives at home. The Johnson administration, most of the media and even some of Dr. King’s allies in the civil rights movement condemned him as a traitor for speaking out against the war. His critics condemned him and warned him that he should stay away from foreign policy and confine his efforts to fighting only for “civil rights.”
In 1968, despite the continued resistance to civil rights by those who opposed the movement as well as the actions by the federal government to undermine Dr. King and the movement itself, Dr. King had not given up on it. In his last book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967), Dr. King wrote about expanding the movement from civil rights to human rights and addressing the fundamental issue of economic justice. He wrote that the wealthiest country in the world should address poverty by providing every citizen a livable income, affordable housing and a decent standard of living. He expanded his efforts to address the nation’s rampant poverty by supporting the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis and by planning a Poor People’s March in Washington, D.C. for the spring of 1968. He also believed that a government and society dominated by institutional racism should provide “affirmative action” to provide special support to those whose lives had been historically circumscribed by individual and institutional racism.
Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, 1967
But Dr. King’s assassination ended not only his efforts to expand the movement from civil rights to human rights; it ended the movement itself.
With the assassination of Dr. King, the fissures in the civil rights movement expanded and broke it. White Americans acted on Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” in 1968 to elect him president. For African Americans, the assassination of Dr. King sent a clear message: his strategy of moral suasion, nonviolent social change and his efforts to form a “beloved community” were pipe dreams. Many young African Americans increasingly supported organizations that advocated “Black Power” and “Black Nationalism.” While the FBI and the media sought to paint organizations and individuals who advocated these two ideas as violent, anti-American revolutionaries, young African Americans like me (I was 18 in 1968) rallied behind these ideas as the natural evolution of the ongoing struggle for black liberation.
Indeed, the assassination of Dr. King made it very clear to my generation that “loving your enemies,” “turning the other cheek” and adopting nonviolence as tactics would get us killed. While we loved and honored Dr. King, we saw that the resistance to his very mild and legitimate demands for the nation to honor its own creed of equality of opportunity, voting rights and basic human rights were demands that the nation could not fulfill. Armed self defense and even urban guerilla warfare seemed more plausible as strategies and tactics to win our freedom and to change the inherent racism in American society than moral suasion.
Based on the “wars of national liberation” that we saw being waged in Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique and in other colonized nations in Africa and Asia, we romanticized that we could do the same thing in the United States. But after COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) and the bloody war that the FBI and the police carried out against the Black Panther Party for Self Defense and other Black Nationalist organizations after Dr. King’s assassination, we came to our senses. We realized that the civil rights movement was over, but we had to survive in order to take the movement to the next level. In addition, we knew that we had to educate the next generation to continue the struggle beyond civil rights.
We adopted the slogan: “a luta continua” (the struggle continues) from FRELIMO (Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (Mozambique Liberation Front) in honor of Dr. King who gave his life and inspired us to find new ways to fight oppression, racism and white supremacy. Indeed, as we have seen, the civil rights movement is over, but we continue to struggle against some of the same issues (political disfranchisement, police brutality and economic discrimination) that confronted Dr. King.
The views and opinions reflected in the Museum’s Guest Blog are those expressly of the author alone, and not of The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.
by Stephen Fagin, Curator
In the days following the Kennedy assassination, more than 300 members of the world press crowded the corridors of Dallas police headquarters, shouting questions at suspect Lee Harvey Oswald and pressing law enforcement for opinions on the case. The Warren Commission in 1964 criticized the media for their part in a frenzied, largely unchecked situation that climaxed with Jack Ruby’s shooting of Oswald. City leaders, fully aware of Dallas’s tainted reputation following the events of that fateful weekend in November 1963, hoped that Ruby’s 1964 murder trial would be handled with far more decorum and security.
Recognizing that hundreds of journalists would cover the trial, Sam Bloom, president of a prominent Dallas advertising agency, offered his services to Judge Joe B. Brown of Criminal District Court No. 3. It was unprecedented for a PR firm to represent a judge, and Bloom faced direct criticism when he testified at a change-of-venue hearing prior to the trial. With more than 300 requests for only forty-eight seats reserved for media, Defense attorney Joe Tonahill accused Bloom of favoring reporters “sympathetic to Dallas.” Bloom denied this, noting that his firm merely handled logistics and credentials, though Bloom employee Helen Holmes did advise Judge Brown and draft his public statements. Media pressure ultimately led Brown to use a larger courtroom for the trial where at least 150 reporters could be seated.
This photograph, taken through the window of the courtroom door, shows defense attorney
Melvin Belli questioning PR executive Sam Bloom on the witness stand.
The day press credentials were issued, Helen Holmes recalled, “there was a stampede.” For added security, journalists were required to wear photographic identification badges, though only the largest news organizations could quickly produce small ID photos for their reporters. The courthouse arranged a checkpoint where everyone, including press, was searched before entry. Though commonplace today, this type of security was new in 1964; some, including syndicated columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, found the whole process comical. Early in the trial, deputy sheriffs confiscated a pocketknife from KRLD-TV sketch artist Ken Hansen, which he needed to sharpen his art pencils. He began pre-sharpening both ends of every pencil to avoid future problems.
Columnist Dorothy Kilgallen smiles as she is searched prior to entering the courtroom.
A probate courtroom was transformed into an international press room with typewriters, twenty Western Union teletype machines and thirty telephones, some with new direct-dialing (non-operator) service. Experienced teletype operators were always on hand, promising an average of sixty words per minute, though few were prepared for the numerous foreign language requests. One operator grew familiar with the word “geschworenenkandidat,” which is “prospective juror” in German.
Some of the thirty telephones installed in the Ruby trial press room.
The Dallas Morning News reported that the courthouse had “an international flavor,” with Swiss, French, Swedish, British, Polish, German, Australian, Bulgarian, Mexican and Canadian press mingling with local and national journalists in the press room. CBS commentator Eric Sevareid noted at the time that the “camaraderie [of local reporters] both beguiles and astounds the European journalists covering the trial.” There was a definite distinction between the relaxed informality of Dallas reporters accustomed to covering the courthouse and those who flew in specifically to cover the Ruby trial, sometimes arriving with negative preconceived notions about the city. Helen Holmes remembered having a reporter from French weekly magazine L’Express physically removed from her PR office. “He was screaming at me,” she recalled in an oral history. “He was yelling at me that he was going to ruin me in Europe because I wasn’t being cooperative enough.”
Some national and international reporters pushed the boundaries of professionalism during the trial. Defense attorney Phil Burleson often received phone calls in the middle of the night from reporters needing to confirm information for pressing deadlines. Defense investigator Bob Denson abandoned his Dallas office to work out of his home because reporters consistently stopped by with questions. Assistant District Attorney Bill Alexander was vocally critical of what he considered “unfair, sloppy” news stories. In a talk given two weeks after the verdict, he lamented, “they reported what they wanted to see and what they wanted to hear rather than the events that happened.” Echoing some of the sentiments expressed by Dallas D.A. Henry Wade, Alexander went on to say that the press “came late, left early and wrote their reports from what they heard at the Press Club.”
Always jockeying for position, there was occasional friction between print, radio and television journalists. Carrying only a portable tape recorder, Gary DeLaune, police reporter for Dallas radio station KLIF, grew frustrated by television technicians wielding large boom microphones. He used the wooden slats of an orange crate to rig a homemade boom mic. “Every day when the network guys would gather around,” he recalled, “I got a chair and I’d start putting that slat over so I could get the audio, and these guys would swear at me.” News photographers also got creative since no cameras were allowed in the courtroom. To get good overhead shots without reporters in the way, a few cameramen taped flashes and remote-operated cameras to hallway walls. In a rare moment of solidarity, network television crews worked together to properly light the main hallway for their bulky cameras. “We had one master switch,” recalled ABC broadcaster Murphy Martin. “Didn’t have to wait for proper lighting or worry about anything like that, and that was the first time that I had been in a situation like that.”
Cameramen gather in the courthouse hallway. Note the lights and camera taped to the wall.
The one occasion when cameras were permitted inside the courtroom was on March 14, 1964, for the trial verdict. Martin, a longtime friend of the judge, was the one who finally convinced Brown to televise that significant moment. Martin and Brown established “some ground rules as to how [the press] would conduct themselves.” Unfortunately, before an audience of millions, all decorum broke down as soon as the guilty verdict was read. Martin recalled that cameramen “just jumped up on the furniture.” PR advisor Helen Holmes had recommended that the verdict not be televised, fearing that the jurors would be overwhelmed by reporters. Instead, she was shocked when live cameras caught lead defense attorney Melvin Belli deliver an impromptu and unhinged rant against Dallas, which he declared “a city of shame forevermore.” Holmes remembered, “He had all these bright lights on him, and his face was just sweating. You could practically see the spittle.”
Analysis of the trial’s unprecedented media coverage was swift in the aftermath. Journalism professor J. Edward Gerald at the University of Minnesota suggested that such “publicity [was] altering the jury system, making it unnecessarily expensive, cumbersome to administer and less trustworthy than justice requires.” The American Bar Association suggested “an urgent need for voluntary restraints” without advocating press censorship or restrictions. The American Civil Liberties Union simply stated “that court proceedings should not be broadcast, televised or photographed.”
Just as the Kennedy assassination altered the way in which breaking news stories are covered, the Jack Ruby trial impacted the way in which the media reports on high-profile court cases, right up to the present day. For those who lived through that hectic, historic experience fifty-four years ago, it was, if nothing else, unforgettable. Helen Holmes concluded, “I think almost everybody connected with the Ruby trial, at one time or another, felt the pressure of the press.”
Note: This blog quotes interviews from the Oral History Project at The Sixth Floor Museum as well as contemporary newspaper accounts. Access to these and other Museum collections is available by scheduling a research appointment in our Reading Room.
The world was shocked by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas. Reported across the globe, the news of President Kennedy’s death eclipsed all other events that took place that day. Here are some things you may not know about that day:
1. Prior to President Kennedy’s assassination, top news stories for November 22 included the Coast Guard recovering wreckage from a U2 plane near Key West, the AFL-CIO calling for a strike in favor of a proposed 35-hour workweek, and the reporting of the November 21 death of Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz.
2. The number one New York Times bestseller for fiction that week was The Group by Mary McCarthy. The number one non-fiction bestseller was JFK: The Man and the Myth by Victor Lasky.
3. Flying over central Florida on November 22, Walt Disney selected the site for what would later become the Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando.
4. The Beatles’ second studio album, With the Beatles, was released in the United Kingdom on November 22.
5. More than 30 college and professional weekend football games throughout the United States were canceled or postponed on November 22, as were most high school games.
6. Almost 66% of American homes with televisions tuned in at 6:15 p.m. EST on November 22 as the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, addressed the nation following his return to Washington.