President John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy
Photo: Getty Images
The Cold War

Initially civil rights were not a major concern for the Kennedy administration. Rather, Cold War politics were front and center. Staunchly anti-communist, John F. Kennedy used his inaugural address to speak about spreading freedom throughout the world—a goal contradicted by the large number of black Americans still lacking basic freedoms and civil rights.

The Freedom Rides did not come at a convenient time for the administration. The president was still smarting from the failed April 17 Bay of Pigs invasion, in which a group of U.S.-sponsored Cuban exiles had attempted to overthrow Castro's regime, and he was preparing for his upcoming Vienna summit with Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev on June 3, 1961. In the interim came headlines and televised images of a burning bus in Anniston, Alabama, and savage beatings in Birmingham, Alabama.

Communist nations were quick to see the propaganda value of the violence accompanying the Freedom Rides. The story of the Freedom Riders was broadcast around the world and the Kennedy administration found itself on the defensive. Robert F. Kennedy delivered an address for the Voice of America claiming that great progress had been made on the issue of race relations, and that a person of color might one day be president. Behind the scenes, the administration worked with leaders in the civil rights movement and white segregationist authorities to resolve the crisis with a minimum of violence and further headlines.

From this point forward, the events of the civil rights movement would play out on an international as well as a domestic stage.

FROM: Oprah Honors American Heroes: The Freedom Riders Reunite 50 Years Later
Published on May 04, 2011


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