Fifty years ago today, Alabama Governor George Wallace tried to block the doors at the University of Alabama to prevent black students Vivian Malone and James Hood from registering for classes. Wallace claimed that the desegregation laws passed by the federal government didn't hold sway in the states.
Wallace was wrong. His own state's National Guard had to step in and ask him to move aside. He did, and Alabama's biggest university became integrated. Wallace was wrong, and he stood up for evil. But evil got shunted to the side.
Later that night, President John F. Kennedy asked the networks for some TV time. He wanted to talk about what had happened in Alabama, and what was happening in a broader sense, across the nation. So fifty years ago tonight, JFK became the first American president in history to go before the public and argue for full racial equality for all Americans.
All these years later, we have not entirely achieved that goal. African-Americans are still denied the right to vote in some states, and more efforts at disenfranchisement are taking place all the time. Latinos are still considered suspect in some states. Minorities, on the whole, are paid less than whites (and women are paid less than men). We've made remarkable progress, but we're not all the way there.
On this anniversary eve, it's worth revisiting President Kennedy's words, in a speech that has become one of the true classics of American political history.
"The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?
"One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free."
Read (and listen to) the whole speech here. It's a remarkable document, still so meaningful today.