TEXT

Notes on Situation in Birmingham, Alabama 5/12/1963

Introduction
President John F. Kennedy made these notes on May 12, 1963, in response to multiple bombings and subsequent rioting in Birmingham, Ala.
Grade Level
Author
John F. Kennedy

 

139 Notes on Situation in Birmingham

This text was transcribed from John F. Kennedy's handwritten notes. The complete images are available for online viewing here.

  I am deeply concerned about the events which occurred in Birmingham, Ala. last night. The home of Reverend A.D. King was bombed and badly damaged; shortly thereafter the A.G. Gaston Motel was also bombed. These occurrences were followed by crowds, rioting, injury to a number of persons, and considerable property damage.

I am particularly distressed that these events should take place immediately following the Birmingham Agreement which promises so much progress for the Negros of that city in the realization of their just demands for equal treatment and opportunity. One of the great moral issues of our time is the achievement of equal opportunity for all citizens. Too long have Negros been denied fair treatment and equal opportunity in all parts of our land. It is increasingly clear that this injustice will no longer be tolerated by them as it should not be tolerated by any American.

These are not problems of Birmingham, the South or Negroes. They are problems which must concern all of us and to which all of us have a moral obligation to put right.

Last week the citizens of Birmingham forced us to that obligation. All of us should be grateful to them for doing so.

Nothing should be tolerated now that jeopardize the progress then made and the agreement to be carried out.

There are extremists who wish to see this agreement fail and will do what they can to achieve this end–by striking at night by inflaming emotions and by inciting or inviting violence.

The federal government stands behind this agreement. Not only the people of Birmingham but the people of the nation are the beneficiaries of this agreement. The federal government will not stand by and permit a few to sabotage it. In view of last night’s events in Birmingham I have taken the following action:

  1. Assistant Deputy Attorney General Joseph F. Dolan and other Justice Department officials returned to Birmingham early this afternoon to consult with local citizens and assess the situation.

  2. Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshal is returning to Birmingham this evening.

  3. I have instructed Secretary of Defense McNamara to alert units of the Armed Forces trained in riot control and to dispatch selected units to military bases in the vicinity of Birmingham.

Source
This text is in the public domain.
Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    What were the events taking place in Birmingham as described by President Kennedy?
    Answer
    The notes describe unrest and violence, including bombings, property damage, vandalism, rioting and bodily harm.
  2. Question
    According to President Kennedy, what were “extremists” responding to when they committed the acts of violence in Birmingham?
    Answer
    An agreement had been reached in Birmingham, providing black residents more equal treatment and opportunities. The bombings and violence were a racist reaction to this progress being made.
  3. Question
    This text shows President Kennedy activating the power of the federal government to restore peace and justice in what some considered a state or local matter. In your view, what roles should the local, state and federal governments play in matters related to civil rights?
    Answer
    Responses will vary.
  4. Question
    What actions does President Kennedy order in immediate response to the situation in Birmingham? What do these actions tell you about his level of commitment to the cause of civil rights?
    Answer
    He orders members of the Justice Department to Birmingham to meet with citizens and assess what was going on. He also orders the secretary of defense to prepare troops, trained in riot control, to be dispatched to the vicinity. Responses will vary but students may say that the president is serious about defending the rights of black citizens and providing protection. Other students may wonder why he himself is not going to Birmingham or why he hasn’t taken actions sooner.
  5. Question
    According to President Kennedy, what does the matter in Birmingham have to do with the rest of the United States? What evidence can you find in the text that he considers this a national crisis?
    Answer
    Students may draw upon different parts of the text, including: “One of the great moral issues of our time is the achievement of equal opportunity for all citizens. Too long have Negros been denied fair treatment and equal opportunity in all parts of our land. It is increasingly clear that this injustice will no longer be tolerated by them as it should not be tolerated by any American.” And: “These are not problems of Birmingham, the South or Negroes. They are problems which must concern all of us and to which all of us have a moral obligation to put right. Last week the citizens of Birmingham forced us to that obligation. All of us should be grateful to them for doing so.” And: “The federal government stands behind this agreement. Not only the people of Birmingham but the people of the nation are the beneficiaries of this agreement.”