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Kennedy's administration during the, this whole films about the freedom righgs. We're talking about those first years of Kennedy's administration '60 and '61. Ya know, JFK have kinda come down people now think about him a lot in terms of civil rights as this great civil rights leader but back then especially during the campaign, '60-'61. Um, that wasn't JFK was he was. He much more focused on foreign policy as I understand it. Talk about what JFK's focus was in early years. 'Scuse me? (mutters) President kennedy was when he'd entered into office I think his main interest was in the cold war and soviet relations and in, uh, doing as well as he could with that. But
it was also he had been elected in large part by the black vote particularly in uh, in uh, chicago. And in illinois and he was conscious of civil rights. He had made the to call to Mrs. King and so forth and the election which had been an important factor in getting elected. And it was a very important factor in the department of justice. And then what Bobby Kennedy was trying to do Bobby was interested in organized crime. He was interested an Hoffa. And he was interested and civil rights. Those were the three areas of concentration that he had in the department of Justice. Oh, but what are the things that also was important t-t-to JFK was also the southern democrats, the southern vote was not a consideration. JFK been made president in large part, got the
nomination of the democratic party from the southern state yes. But he he knew perfectly well as I think everybody did that at that point in history, uh, the protests for civil rights was going to go on and something had to be done about it and should be done about it. He knew that and he understood that. I think the difficulty was how much, you could do and how much you could get done. [host]: What do you mean? [guest]: What I mean by that is you had the brown decision, brown against board of education which said, "integrate all schools". And that was clearly going to be a major probably legal defense fund was concentrating on schools. In the brown case, in addition to schools, what it really said was that that black citizens, african american citizens, were entitled to the same rights as
everybody else. And that they were being denied them and parts of the country and they are entitled to them. Uh, and that was used by Dr. King in terms of his sit-ins restaurants and lunch counters, department stores and so forth. Which in a perfect right to do. Believe it had a constitutional right to do. And he was right, he did. So, although that wasn't accepted in the places that he was doing it, by any means. So, demonstrations people went to jail, people got imprisoned for exercising constitutional rights. And you those problems and you knew you're going to have those problems. And the solution to it, the only solution to it was to have people comply with the constitution with the laws. And they were about to do it. [host]: When did you first hear about the freedom rights? [guest]: I don't
remember exactly when I first heard about the free righters. It probably was fairly early in 1961, maybe march something like that. And again that's an example similar to Dr. Kings' sit-ins. People exercising perfect rights that they had under the constitution to do sit-in buses travel in buses and non discriminatory way. But again it wasn't gonna by about to be accepted and south. (indistinct) "rolling, rolling?" What was Robert Kennedy's reaction to the freedom writers? I think Robert Kennedy's reaction the freedom writers was that they have a perfect right to do what they were doing. But at the same time what they were doing was gonna make problems for him &
for the government. (coughing) They were gonna be beaten up, chances of that, seriously beaten up arrested, put in jail unconstitutional but put in jail. And that this would go on and the problem was from his point of view, is these people risking a great deal which they're entitled to do for constitutional rights. I can't protect them and they want protection from the federal government. And I think bobby was saying in essence I don't know how to do it. [host]: Why was it so hard to do for the federal government to protect them. [Guest]: Oh, the federal government could've uh, put the army and every city that they're going to confronted the local police. If the local police didn't like they could've been done and what would've been accomplished? As far as I can see nothing. The riots would have been had. And then every time the riots
said that they had yet to get the army mobilized again and get it in. Actuality you didn't have a right to mobilize the army until you could establish the governor of the state was unable or unwilling to protect the citizens. So clearly was able to do it. So it was a question whether he was unwilling to do it. And of course none of them would say they are unwilling to do it. And they would prove themselves to be unwilling to do it'd be too late. You could use one instance. I think probably there was enough to say that the danger was great we could've brought in the military. And how do you get'em out? You wanna keep them there to protect what? - You could occupy the south again with the military that wasn't what the kennedy administration wanted to do and it wasn't the kennedy administration believed was the right thing to do.
In terms of civil rights, what we were trying to do in the administration was we were trying to get civil rights accepted by the people who are denying them. And it didn't do much good to cram it down their throat. What we wanted to do was to get the southern police southern sheriffs to obey the constitution and to do it the right way. And what was clearly obvious was you couldn't do that without legislation. And what was equally obvious was in 1961 and 1962 you were going to be able to get legislation through congress the united states. There's too much racial prejudice there as well as through most of the white community in the country not just in the south. (coughs) [host]: So if you couldn't get legislation through and you didn't want an occupy the south with the army and yeah, those are both understandable, what do you do?
[guest]: There was a problem that we had what do we do. And, uh, what in fact i think civil rights leaders so as the right thing to do is to demonstrate to the extent that they could have irrational, how wrong, how (stutters) just un- absolutely intolerable to anybody white or black this kind of treatment was for people riding an integrated buses one thing sitting in and restaurants was another. And they were being denied the vote. Schools weren't integrated. And the hope was that in time we could get enough support in order to get legislation. But we knew we didn't have it in 1961 and 1962. [host]: So in a way are you saying that that part of what the freedom writer were
doing were pushing the american public into a place where they would be in favor of legislation? [guest]: I think so I think that's I think that is just think that's what James Forman was trying to do. He was trying to demonstrate how bad things were. Just as Dr. King was trying to demonstrate how bad things were. And i think they're competing in ways is to demonstrate how bad things were by using different ways showing it. But each was determined to show that that to the situation in the south was intolerable for african americans in the south. And it had to be, to make it a tolerable you have to guarantee that those rights would in fact be observed. [host]: One of the things (studders) that has been said by by leaders and civil rights leaders in that and also by leaders in government.
Was that you know in some ways, um the freedom rights we're inviting violence. Almost like that's what they wanted [Guest]: I think to the extent, I don't they really want to be beaten up but they wanted to demonstrate how bad things were and at the risk of being beaten up they were doing that. And I think that that was a way to get legislation I think (studdering) different ways of looking it, people, civil rights people were interested in establishing those civil rights for black americans. So was the administration. But the administration was also interested in trying to preserve just as it occurred under lincoln trying to preserve the union in doing so. And that was not an easy thing to do. And that it really, in essence, when you couldn't do it with a
court, you can do it through executive action. You needed to have the congress speak. Cuz that was nearest thing you could get them in the people speak throughout the country. And eventually they did [host]: I think one thing people don't understand weren't around that time and, ya know, um, we're talking almost 50 years ago now, so there's a lot of people who were around in that time or were conscious of what was going. People have forgotten that the kind of, um, ya know, the whole idea of the southern democrats. And how powerful they were. So you were part government that at that point. Tell me little bit about, tell me 'bout southern democrat and how, ya know, Kennedy are or and democratic president needed southern democrats and why. [guest]: Well, the southern democrats had voted democratic for a long time. But not in support of democratic legislation very often.
They held their seats in the solid south which was solidly democratic in its votes. And that was very important in the democratic conventions, to who going to nominate a president. But that despite that the because of the number of blacks in the north. And because of the attitude of people in the north. The democratic party was far more liberal with respect to racial matters than republican party was. In fact despite the existence of this in the south, just a (indistinct) system in the south. I think when people were elected like Kennedy. I think he expected to get some of these people have voted for him in the convention. I think he expected to be cut a little bit of slack in terms of they're not tolerating beating up people, and
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American Experience
Freedom Riders
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Interview with Nicholas Katzenbach, 1 of 3
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WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
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Nicholas Katzenbach served as Deputy Attorney General from 1962 to 1965, under Attorney General Robert Kennedy. He served as Attorney General from 1965 to 1966 under President Johnson. Katzenbach assisted in drafting civil rights legislation and played an important role in fighting segregation in the South.
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American history, African Americans, civil rights, racism, segregation, activism, students
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Chicago: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Nicholas Katzenbach, 1 of 3,” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed January 15, 2021,
MLA: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Nicholas Katzenbach, 1 of 3.” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. January 15, 2021. <>.
APA: American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Nicholas Katzenbach, 1 of 3. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from