History June 14, 2017: The moment civil rights history altered forever: Kennedy’s June 11 address to the nation




By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

John F. Kennedy delivering the Civil Rights Address (Wikimedia Commons)

On This Day in History June 11, 1963… President John F. Kennedy delivered a televised address on civil rights to the nation from the White House Oval Office paving the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Recently, two days in June 1963 have been highlighted as part the pantheon of major turning points in American history. The recently published “Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Changed History” by award-winning journalist and Canadian political author Andrew Cohen in 2014 highlighted the importance of those two days to both the Civil Rights movement, the Cold War and the Kennedy presidency.

Cohen emphasized the magnitude of the events and particularly two speeches Kennedy delivered one on foreign policy at the commencement at American University and the other televised to the nations advancing civil rights. Cohen explained, “To the calendar, June 10 and June 11, 1963, was late spring; to history, it was high summer. Great forces converged and smaller ones emerged over these forty-eight hours, bracketed by two imperishable speeches. One produced an arms treaty, the first of the Cold War. The other produced a civil rights law, the most important of its time” (p. 19)

Cohen indicated the importance of those dates in the Kennedy Presidency, but a recent op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal by author Joel Engel went further. Engel in his article entitled “Three Days That Changed the World, Not That the World Noticed” elevated the significance of three days in June 1963 as major turning points in history. Engel noted, “History is in part the observation of consequential days, tragic and joyous. Americans celebrate July 4 and commemorate Sept. 11. We remember Dec. 7 and honor June 6. In those four days, major events bore consequences that changed the world. But at no time in American history have there been three days like June 10–12, 1963, during which several unrelated events altered the nation’s course as surely as had the attack on Pearl Harbor.”

June 11 and 12, 1963 represented a tide that turned in the battle African-Americans had been waging to obtain civil and equal rights in the United States. All the more significant, 1963 was the bicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation were in the midst of the Civil War President Abraham Lincoln granted freedom to America’s slaves. Freedom did not mean equality, although initially through Reconstruction African-Americans saw gains with the addition of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution soon segregationist Jim Crow laws segregating African-American settled in throughout the South leaving a new form of bondage.

Throughout, African-Americans were slowly fighting back, primarily with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) founded in 1909; the best way to move forward was within the court system. Any gains were minimal until a major victory in the Supreme Court by the landmark ruling of the Brown v Board of Education. The decision declared separate segregated school, were not equal but also illegal.

A legal victory was not a practical one; the south remained unwilling to desegregate their schools, and only 10 percent of schools desegregated by the end of the decade. Desegregation took a turn when in 1957 President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent the National Guard to “enforce the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas.” Afterward, desegregation sped up in public schools, but in every other way of life, it remained at a standstill. In 1960 and 1961, sit-ins and freedom rides attempted to desegregate lunch counters and buses. The gains remained modest under Democrat John F. Kennedy’s presidency despite the sympathetic rhetoric, but only minor action.

The spring of 1963 was paving the way to those two fateful days that would lead to a turning point. The push for desegregation gained momentum with the rise of a charismatic and eloquent leader; Montgomery, Alabama, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King’s non-violent protests became a hallmark of the civil rights movement, and integral part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which King helped found in 1957, and also served as president. King gained prominence as the leader of the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott in the winter of 1955–56 at just 26.

In the interim, King’s movement would continue to make news, but King again made headlines in the spring of 1963 with a string of protests in Birmingham, Alabama, which King called “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.” Throughout the spring, from April 3 to May 10, King along with Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and James Bevel of the SCLC led activists in the Birmingham campaign, who protested with sit-ins, marches and a boycott, most leading to clashes with the local police.

One of the most notable occurred on Good Friday, April 12, 1963, where King was arrested for his 13th time. King would remain in jail for a week staying longer than necessary mostly to publicize the movement. There he wrote his famous treatise “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the letter was a response to a letter eight religious leaders wrote criticizing him in Birmingham’s newspaper. King defended the movement’s methods and criticizing the leaders saying, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” President Kennedy eventually intervened leading to King’s release on April 20.

The demonstrations continued and the violent tactics of Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene “Bull” Connor, continued. On May 2, what was later dubbed the “Children’s Crusade,” protest led to nearly 1000 arrests and Connor used “fire hoses and police dogs” on the young school age protesters. The televised images gripped the nation with the New York Times publishing a photo of dogs attacking a 17-year-old student on their front page. At the time Kennedy remarked, “The other problem is the problem of civil rights… What a disaster that picture is. That picture is not only in America but all around the world.”

There was a brief moment of peace, on May 11, civil rights leaders and city and business owners in Birmingham signed the “Birmingham Truce Agreement.” The deal allowed for a “partial desegregation (of fitting rooms, water fountains, and lunch counters in retail stores).” Additionally, those arrested during the campaign would be released, and there would be the creation of a Committee on Racial Problems and Employment.

On the evening of May 11, segregationists most probably members of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama targeted civil rights leaders with bombs including the home of Rev. A. D. King, movement leader, King’s brother and the Gaston Motel, where King was staying and held a press conference the day before. The non-violence espoused by King turned to violent protests and riots later in the evening.

The violence forced President Kennedy to act; he sent “troops to an Alabama air base” and began the process of “drafting” a proposed civil rights bill to send to Congress. Addressing the nation, Kennedy balked at addressing the larger issue at hand, civil rights. Instead, while addressing the nation Kennedy said, “This Government will do whatever must be done to preserve order, to protect the lives of its citizens, and to uphold the law of the land.” (Brinkley, 106) The morality of civil rights would have to wait a month.

Still, according to historian Nicholas Andrew Bryant in his highly critical book, “The Bystander: John F. Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality,” (2006) Kennedy refused to bring about legislation throughout the Birmingham Campaign, and only considered action after the riots broke out. Bryant, who examined the Kennedy civil rights legacy throughout his entire political career, questioned why it took the president over two years to get to the issue and pursue legislation.

Sheldon M. Stern points out that according to Bryant Kennedy had “a willingness to make important symbolic gestures about race and civil rights, coupled with a reluctance to take political risks.” (Hoberek, 79) Bryant also concluded Kennedy’s civil rights record showed a “symbolic approach to the race problem meant that many of the changes he ushered in were largely cosmetic.” (Hoberek, 85) Historian Alan Brinkley writing his biography John F. Kennedy as part of the American Presidents Series concurs, writing that towards civil rights Kennedy had a “pattern of rhetorical activism followed by resistance and delay began on his very first day in office.”

The pivotal moment that changed Kennedy perception on civil rights was viewing African-Americans fighting back with the May 11 race riots. Kennedy could no longer sit idly by; civil rights had also become law and order issues that he could not let go unresolved. Bryant analyzes in his book, “It was the black-on-white violence of May 11 — not the publication of the startling photograph a week earlier — that represented the real watershed in Kennedy’s thinking, and the turning point in administration policy. Kennedy had grown used to segregationist attacks against civil rights protesters. But he — along with his brother and other administration officials — was far more troubled by black mobs running amok.” (Bryant, 393)

A taped conversation between the president and his brother and Attorney General Robert Kennedy from the Oval Office confirmed his motivation. Kennedy indicated on May 12, “First we have to have law and order, so the Negro’s not running all over the city… If the [local Birmingham desegregation] agreement blows up, the other remedy we have under that condition is to send legislation up to Congress this week as our response…As a means of providing relief, we have to have legislation.”

June 11, 1963, was a busy day for the civil rights movement. Earlier, Alabama Governor and strong segregationist George Wallace delivered his “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door Speech.” Alabama was the only state that still did not desegregate their schools, Democrat Wallace entered office earlier in the year promising “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” Wallace was unyielding refusing to negotiate and compromise with the Kennedy Administration, hoping instead for a confrontation that would elevate his status, while diminishing Kennedy in the Deep South.

On June 11, Wallace physically prevented two African American students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from completing their registration at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Wallace literally stood in front of the school’s Foster Auditorium door blocking Malone and Hood from entering. Wallace attempted to prevent the university’s integration despite a court order the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama.

When Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach asked Wallace to move aside, he refused. Instead, Wallace delivered his infamous speech on states’ rights. Wallace called the desegregation an “unwelcomed, unwarranted and force-induced intrusion upon the campus” and “a frightful example of the expression of the rights, privileges, and sovereignty of this state.” (Brinkley, 109) Katzenbach then contacted President Kennedy.

President Kennedy again was forced to federalize the Alabama National Guard Executive Order 11111 to end the conflict. Kennedy issued Presidential Proclamation 3542 to force Wallace to comply and allow the students to enter the university building and complete their registration. Four hours later Wallace finally moved aside after being by Guard General Henry Graham, allowing for the integration of the University. Wallace made national headlines upping his profile, but also forcing Kennedy’s hand that he had no choice left but to announce his intentions to introduce a civil rights bill to Congress.

Kennedy’s address would have an adverse reaction on civil rights leaders. Just hours later in the early morning of June 12, Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi. Evers was African-American civil rights activist and the field secretary for the Mississippi state NAACP, who earlier in the day demanded desegregation from local leaders. Byron De La Beckwith, who belonged to the segregated group the White Citizens’ Council, shot Evers in the back as he entered his home after returning from a meeting with NAACP lawyers. Although De La Beckwith was first arrested on June 21, 1963, for Evers’ murder, it took until 1994 for him to be convicted of the crime.

It was against this turmoil in the nation over civil rights that President Kennedy called and booked time on all three major networks for him to speak to the nation at 8 PM EDT on civil rights and the situation in Alabama. Kennedy decided the time was ripe to announce his intention to introduce civil rights legislation. As Cohen recounted, “The pretext was Tuscaloosa (today’s confrontation), the context was Birmingham (the unrest there elsewhere that spring), and the subtext was Washington (to make the case for legislation.)” (321)

It was a hastily drafted speech by Ted Sorensen in a mere two hours and revised by Kennedy. Sorenson looked back at past speeches he created for Kennedy on the issue, his own experience, and softened the rhetoric of the past few days. The president’s brother Bobby Kennedy was not pleased with Sorenson’s quickly written speech and even requested civil rights advisor Lee White to assist. The short time to draft the speech made Kennedy nervous, even doubtful if should even deliver it according to White’s observations.

Kennedy’s other poet laureate historian Arthur Schlesinger was nowhere to be found despite attempts to reach him when they did finally reach him it was too late for him to help with the speech. In the end, White did not add to the speech, but aide Louis Martin did, however, Sorenson never gave him authorship credit. The speech was not completed in time, and President Kennedy was receiving pages just as he was about to start. Kennedy determined Sorenson’s speech was too short, and he needed to fill up time, added eight paragraphs “off-the-cuff” (Cohen, 338) to the address, which is considered the best lines. The “moral issue” would be the speech’s overriding theme.

The President told Americans that segregation is a “moral issue” that is wrong. Kennedy stated; “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. 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.” President Kennedy accomplished two points in his speech, the introduction of civil rights legislation, and the beginning of significant comprehensive school desegregation.

Kennedy pleaded to the American people that civil rights are the responsibility of all citizens; “It is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say this is a problem of one section of the country or another, or deplore the fact that we face. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all… Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right as well as reality.”

Kennedy specifically emphasized the lack of action since the Supreme Court’s decision in 1954. The landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education case ended the legality of the separate but equal system. Kennedy lamented; “Too many Negro children entering segregated grade schools at the time of the Supreme Court’s decision 9 years ago will enter segregated high schools this fall, having suffered a loss which can never be restored. The lack of an adequate education denies the Negro a chance to get a decent job. The orderly implementation of the Supreme Court decision, therefore, cannot be left solely to those who may not have the economic resources to carry the legal action or who may be subject to harassment.”

In his speech, President Kennedy began an active pursuit of Congressional legislation that would end segregation. Kennedy laid out his legislative plans, “Next week I shall ask the Congress of the United States to act, to make a commitment it has not fully made in this century to the proposition that race has no place in American life or law…. I am, therefore, asking the Congress to enact legislation giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public-hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments.”

President Kennedy also introduced the pursuit of the vote for all African-Americans. The president stated, “Other features will be also requested, including greater protection for the right to vote. But the legislation, I repeat, cannot solve this problem alone. It must be solved in the homes of every American in every community across our country.” With his speech that night, Kennedy was pushing in motion not only the Civil Rights Act, but also the subsequent Voting Rights Act passed two years later in 1965 which guaranteed the vote to all Americans.

Kennedy concluded his 15-minute speech with a request for support from the American public for his sweeping and necessary proposals. The proposals were based on Constitutional rights for all Americans. Kennedy expressed to the nation, “Therefore, I am asking for your help in making it easier for us to move ahead and to provide the kind of equality of treatment which we would want ourselves; to give a chance for every child to be educated to the limit of his talents… This is what we are talking about and this is a matter which concerns this country and what it stands for, and in meeting it I ask the support of all our citizens.” Cohen described the speech as “a triumph. These were words written in haste for the ages. It was a knock-down, flat-out masterpiece.” (Cohen, 338) Meanwhile, historian Garth E. Pauley in “The Modern Presidency and Civil Rights” called the speech “the first sustained moral argument by an American President on civil rights.” (Hoberek, 77)

President Kennedy no longer wanted to be the bystander as Bryant called him, but he wanted to take his longtime rhetoric on civil rights and turn it into action. Kennedy told Arthur Schlesinger about his decision to move, then on the bill, he “thought more highly of American Presidents” who emphasized “concrete achievement rather than political education.” Kennedy’s civil rights speech as Cohen indicated, “was the moment a president pivoted. Kennedy was moving from detachment to engagement, from being a transactional president — as political scientists would classify leadership of a certain type a half century later — top a transformative one.” (Cohen, 338)

Kennedy submitted a civil rights bill to Congress the next week on June 19, which historian Robert Dallek in his biography of President Kennedy, an Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963 described as “the most far-reaching civil rights bill in the country’s history.” (Dallek) The law would guarantee the right to vote for all with the minimum of a sixth-grade education, and end discrimination in all public and commercial facilities establishments and accommodations.

Kennedy also requested that the attorney general is granted expanded powers to implement school desegregation, asked to end job discrimination and create job training opportunities and a “community relations service.” Kennedy used the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments of the Constitution to justify the contents of his proposed bill.

The leader of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. approved of President Kennedy’s speech and described it as ‘the most sweeping and forthright ever presented by an American president.’” Initially, King told Reverend Walter Fauntroy who he was watching the speech with, “can you believe that white man not only stepped up to the plate, he hit over the fence!” (Cohen, 339) Publicly King sent Kennedy a wire saying, “I have just listened to your speech to the nation. It was one of the most eloquent, profound and unequivocal pleas for justice and freedom of all men ever made by a president. You spoke passionately for the moral issues involved in the integration struggle.” (Cohen, 339) Kennedy, however, faced a tougher response from Congress.

Still, King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” delivered on August 28, 1963, over two months later during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom would eclipse Kennedy’s speech as the most relevant to advancing civil rights. Although a pivotal moment, the march attended by 200,000 to 300,000, concerned Kennedy who asked King to cancel it, fearing “a big show on the Capitol” would hinder the passage of the civil rights bill. Kennedy even refused to meet with the delegation of civil rights leaders at the White House before the march concerned it could cause demonstrations. Instead, Kennedy opted for meeting King and the other leaders of the major organizations after the march ended that day.

Kennedy was right, he would not see the civil rights bill his administration authored passed into law, or even debated and put to vote on the floor of Congress. President Kennedy continued pushing Congress to pass civil rights legislation with bipartisan support in the following months but to no avail. Civil rights were one of four bills, Kennedy wanted to be passed, but never did in his lifetime, the others were a “tax cut, federal aid to education, and Medicare.” (Cohen, 360) Kennedy’s agenda stalled mostly because of his civil rights bills that led to anger from Southern Democrats and in general from the south. Kennedy would be assassinated months later, on November 23, in Dallas, Texas leaving his Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson from Texas to take over the mantle.

Pursuing civil rights, however, would become central to Kennedy’s legacy. Nevertheless, as Brinkley noted, there was a “harsh and often violent opposition that made it unlikely that his civil rights legislation would succeed soon. His tragic death, and the political skills of Lyndon Johnson, made possible the passage of civil rights and voting rights legislation. But John Kennedy — and the great movement that he finally embraced — was essential to great achievements.” (Brinkley, 112)

President Kennedy’s address to the nation on June 11 altered forever the direction of civil rights in the country. Historian Penial E. Joseph says it “might have been the single most important day in civil rights history.” Joseph also noted, “without the moral forcefulness of the June 11th speech, the bill might never have gone anywhere.” (Hoborek, 78) Without President Kennedy haven taken initial action with this speech and laying out his bold vision and plan to make a civil rights a reality for all Americans, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would never have passed and signed into law on July 2, 1964.


Brinkley, Alan. John F. Kennedy. New York: Times Books, 2012.

Bryant, Nick. The Bystander: John F. Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality. New York: Basic Books, 2006.

Cohen, Andrew. Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History. [Toronto, Ontario]: Signal, McClelland & Stewart, 2016.

Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Co, 2003.

Dallek, Robert. John F. Kennedy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Hoberek, Andrew. The Cambridge Companion to John F. Kennedy. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Joseph, Peniel E. “Kennedy’s Finest Moment,” The New York Times, June 10, 2013 Accessed June 12, 2017.

Pauley, Garth E. The Modern Presidency & Civil Rights: Rhetoric on Race from Roosevelt to Nixon. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2001.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.


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Welcome to Academic Buzz Network, edited by Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS and editor of History Musings.

Academic Buzz Network is the banner network of blogs focusing on academic news.

Each blog is devoted to a specific subject. At this time there are buzz blogs for History, Politics, Jewish Studies, Israel, Art history, and book news.


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On this day in history January 4, 1896: Utah is admitted as the 45th State of the Union



On this day in history…. January 4, 1896: Utah is admitted as the 45th State of the Union

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

HNN, Tuesday, January 1, 2008

On this day in history…. January 4, 1893, US President Benjamin Harrison granted amnesty to those who committed Mormon polygamy, and on January 4, 1896, Utah was admitted as the 45th state.

First & Second Attempt

Utah’s long quest for statehood was finally officially granted in 1896. It was a long struggle for Utah’s Mormons to convince the U.S. federal government that their territory should be admitted to statehood. From the first attempt at statehood in 1849-50, the major point of contention was the Mormon’s embrace of polygamy. The Mormons’ second attempt at statehood, was simultaneous with the Republican Party’s first presidential campaign in 1856. Republican opposition to polygamy was akin to its opposition to slavery; both were condemned in the party platform as the “twin relics of barbarism.” According to recent historical scholarship, the number one reason that it took Utah nearly fifty years to be admitted to the Union was that of the practice of polygamy. As historian Joan Smith Iversen writes, “Whereas Mormon historians once held that polygamy was only a diversionary issue raised by anti-Mormons who actually opposed the power of the LDS church, recent interpretations by [Edward Leo] Lyman and historian Jan Shipps have found the polygamy issue to be critical to the anti-Mormon struggles.” (Iversen, 585)

In 1850, Congress refused the first request for statehood for a proposed state named Deseret based on the lack of the requisite number of eligible voters and the huge size of the state. Instead, President Millard Fillmore signed into law on September 9, 1850, the bill creating the Utah Territory with a new border, an initial step on the path to statehood. Damaging the prospects of the Mormons was the admission after repeated denials that one of the church’s religious principles was patriarchal (plural) marriage. It was disclosed that leading male members of the church were encouraged to marry more than one wife. The announcement elicited a negative response from the general American public and political opposition from the federal government to all Mormon requests for Utah statehood. The government made it known to the Mormons that as long polygamy was condoned and practiced in Utah, statehood would not be granted.

Third & Fourth Attempt

The Federal government also took steps to force the Mormons to abandon polygamy. In 1862 during the third failed attempt for statehood Congress was considering legislation to prohibit plural marriage. The Morrill Anti-bigamy Act banned polygamy and dissolved the Mormon Church. It was never actually enforced, but Congress refused to grant an 1867 request to repeal it.

In 1872 there was a fourth attempt at statehood that included a ratified constitution presented to Congress. The Mormon majority was still insisting on calling the new state Deseret, even after the area was named the Utah territory. Congress again said no.

The anti-polygamy crusade heated up. In 1874 Congress passed the Poland Act, which established district courts in Utah, making it easier to prosecute polygamists. In 1879 in the Supreme Court case Reynolds v. United States, Chief Justice Waite ruled that Mormon polygamy was “disruptive of peace and good order, threatening the foundations of the country,” therefore upholding the Morrill Act. Iversen, 588 However, the crusade did not stop there. The Anti-Polygamy Society of Salt Lake City was established a year later in April 1880, when the women members of the group sent a petition to first lady Lucy Hayes requesting help to save the wives of polygamist husbands. The group, which changed its name in August 1880 to the Woman’s National Anti-Polygamy Society, pressed Congress to unseat polygamist George Q. Cannon, Utah’s territorial representative to Congress.

Fifth Attempt

In 1882 a mixed Mormon and non-Mormon constitutional convention requested for the fifth time that Utah be admitted as a state. This time the proposed constitution established Utah as “a republican form of government” and adopted the use of the name “Utah.” Congress again refused. As Larson writes, “Utah would not be admitted without complete divorcement of church and state and abolition of plural marriage.” Poll, 258 In 1882 a law was passed criminalizing polygamy.

Sixth Attempt

When the Democrat Grover Cleveland was elected President, the Mormons hoped that statehood could finally be pushed through, since the Democrats had always been more supportive, while the Republicans pushed for the anti-polygamy legislation. But two years later the U.S. Senate passed the Edmunds-Tucker bill, which would force the LDS Church to forfeit property more than $50,000, and would abolish woman’s suffrage in the territory if polygamy continued. In February 1887, the bill passed both houses and Cleveland allowed it to take effect without his signature.

Still, Cleveland tried to ease tensions in the manner in which he filled Utah territorial positions. Church emissaries developed an understanding with the President and some of his closest advisors, including Solicitor General George A. Jenks.

In their sixth attempt at statehood in 1887, the Utahns included a constitutional clause prohibiting polygamy (Jenks wrote it). Mormon Church leaders thought it was better to control the polygamy situation themselves, and believed the constitutional wording was enough of a goodwill gesture. Still, the Church hierarchy would not give up polygamy as a tenet and practice. Congress doubted that the Utah constitutional amendment against polygamy would be enforced, and denied statehood.

The Woodruff Manifesto

The denial showed that the Church had to do something to something to show the Mormons would end polygamist marriages. The Church attempted several goodwill gestures in 1889, first withholding the authority to perform the polygamist marriages and then razing the Endowment House on Temple Square, where many polygamous unions had been performed. This was still not enough; the Church had to make a more formal declaration against the practice, especially after the introduction of the Cullom-Struble Bill, which would have denied the vote even to non-polygamous Mormons. Church representatives sought intervention from the Secretary of State James G. Blaine, who had Republican support from Utah. According to Larson and Poll, Blaine “promise[ed] to halt congressional action on Mormon disfranchisement if the church ‘got into line.’ ” Poll, 388 He held off the passage of the bill as long as the Church would ban polygamy.

The backlash from Washington forced the President of the Mormon Church, Wilford Woodruff, to finally relent. The official proclamation, known as the Woodruff Manifesto (September 24, 1890), declared that Endowment House had been razed and denied that polygamous marriages had been performed in 1889. The manifesto concluded, “and now, I publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from conducting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land.” (Poll, 372)

The Secretary of the Interior, John W. Noble, did not accept the manifesto as authoritative “without its acceptance by the [church] conference.” On October 6, 1890, the Mormons gathered and unanimously approved the manifesto. The historian Howard R. Lamar has called the move “the policy of superior virtue and patriotic conformity.” (Poll, 387) Washington remained cautious about the manifesto, and President Benjamin Harrison still did not believe Utah should be admitted as a state. But the church’s action finally persuaded the territorial governor, a zealous anti-polygamy crusader, that Utah deserved statehood.

The Home Stretch

There remained one issue that Washington wanted to be resolved before Utah’s petition could be accepted; the people had to establish branches of the two national political parties. Until that point the political parties were aligned with religious beliefs; the Peoples party was Mormon; the Liberal party was non-Mormon. The system blurred the division of state and church that characterized the American political system and was the last barrier to statehood. As the historians, Gustive O. Larson and Richard D. Poll write: “As long as the People’s Party functioned as the political arm of the Mormon Church, the church-state struggle was certain to continue, with the Liberal Party blocking every approach to membership in the Union. With the ‘twin relic’ out of the way, it became increasingly clear to moderates in both parties that the road out of territorial subordination must be by way of national political affiliations.” (Poll, 387)

In response, Utah’s population, which was still 90 percent Mormon, decided to adopt the national political parties. Although traditionally the Utah territory was more inclined to side with the Democratic Party, while Cleveland had been in power the party had not reached out enough to the Mormons. It seemed more beneficial to side with the Republicans, especially since they were in power. Still, many of the Mormon members supported the Democrats. Apostle Abraham H. Cannon wrote in his journal on June 9, 1891, that he feared the support for Democrats was a hindrance to statehood: “The danger of our people all becoming Democrats . . . is feared, and the results of such a course would doubtless prove disastrous to us.” He continued, “It is felt that efforts should be made to instruct our people in Republicanism and thus win them to that party.” (Poll, 389)

To secure statehood, the Church dissolved the People’s Party on June 10, 1891, and established a two party system by arbitrarily dividing the membership equally into two groups. The dissolution of the People’s Party caused President Cleveland to send a telegram of “Congratulations to the Democracy of this Territory on their organization.”

After the Mormon Church had abolished polygamy and the People’s Party, the leaders tried to protect those Mormons who had been prosecuted for polygamy by requesting amnesty from President Harrison. On December 21, 1891, the Church leaders submitted a formal petition for amnesty endorsed by Governor Arthur L. Thomas and Chief Justice Zane. President Harrison was reluctant to grant it since it was an election year and would alienate voters. But after he lost the election, he agreed to the grant of amnesty. Republican leaders thought it would vindicate the party since they promised to help the Mormons gain statehood, and Utah’s admission as a state had political significance. On January 4, 1893, Harrison granted amnesty and a pardon “to all persons liable . . . By reason of unlawful cohabitation . . . who since November 1, 1890, have abstained from unlawful cohabitation.” In July the Utah Commission proclaimed that “amnestied polygamists be allowed to vote.” (Poll, 392)

Utah was in the home stretch to finally become a state. On July 16, 1894, President Grover Cleveland, in his second term, granted a pardon to all, restoring civil rights to all former polygamists who had been disenfranchised. At the same time, he signed the Enabling Act which Congress passed delineating the final steps required to advance to statehood. As the New York Times reported at the time, “The signing of the Utah Bill for Statehood closes one of the most remarkable contests in the history of American politics. The Territory has been an applicant for statehood and really eligible in population and wealth for many years….The struggle over polygamy and the Mormon Church has deferred it admission until the present time.” (NYT, 7-18-1894)

All that remained was to hold a constitutional convention. On November 6, 1894, voters elected 107 delegates to the convention in Salt Lake City; 77 were Mormons, and 30 were polygamists. On March 4, 1895, the delegates met to frame the new state’s constitution, which included this clause: “polygamous or plural marriages are forever prohibited.” (Utah Constitution) The constitution was completed on May 6, 1895, signed on May 8, and ratified at the general election on November 5, 1895.

Finally, on January 4, 1896, Utah was admitted as the 45th state in the Union. Its entry was based on the Mormon Church’s renunciation of polygamy. Most of those outside the church believed the issue of polygamy was put to rest, but some critics remained suspicious that many of the plural marriages that were performed before 1890, were not in fact aborted. Still B. Carmon Hardy writes, “To most outside the church, however, Mormonism appeared honestly and forever to have put its greatest evil away. The [Woodruff] Manifesto had succeeded in its intent and Utah had won its star in the flag.” (p. 153) Although Utah was admitted into the union over a hundred years ago, the polygamist past of the Mormons still haunts them, as Mitt Romney has discovered in his quest for the presidency.

Sources and further reading:

Constitution of the State of Utah

Sarah Barringer Gordon, The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America, (UNC Press, 2002).

B. Carmon Hardy, Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage, (University of Illinois Press, 1992).

Joan Smyth Iversen, “A Debate on the American Home: The Antipolygamy Controversy, 1880-1890,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, No. 4. (Apr., 1991), pp. 585-602.

Gustive O. Larsen, The Americanization of Utah for Statehood, (Huntington Library, 1971).

Edward Leo Lyman, Political Deliverance: The Mormon Quest for Utah Statehood, (University of Illinois Press, 1986).

Richard D. Poll, et al. eds., Utah’s History, (Utah State University Press), 1989.

Jonathan D. Sarna, ed., Minority Faiths and the American Protestant Mainstream, (University of Illinois Press, 1997).


On this day in history December 17, 1862: Grant Issues General Order No. 11 Against the Jews



On this day in history…. December 17, 1862: Grant Issues General Order No. 11 Against the Jews

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

HNN, Tuesday, December 11, 2007

On this day in history… December 17, 1862, Union General Ulysses S. Grant issues General Order Number 11, expelling Jews from areas of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky.

General Order Number 11 stands out in American history as the first instance of a policy of official anti-Semitism on a large scale. The anti-Semitic order had deeper roots; many Northerners and Union army officials harbored anti-Jewish resentments. Jews in Union occupied Southern cities and towns faced the brunt of this prejudice. As Berthram Wallace Korn explains in his authoritative work, American Jewry and the Civil War (1951): “Some of the most prominent people in the Union were imbued with prejudice against the Jews.” (Korn, 164) It was this anti-Semitism within the ranks of the Union army that led to General Grant’s General Order No. 11 that called for all Jews to be expelled in his district, which covered the states of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky.

Underlying the order was a negative image of the Jewish merchant and the belief that Jews were part of a black market in Southern cotton. Although at war, the North and South still relied on each other economically. The North especially needed the South’s surplus cotton for the production of military tents and uniforms. The Union army would have implemented a ban on trade with the South completely; President Abraham Lincoln preferred a limited trade in cotton. The Battle of Shiloh made this trade possible by opening up the Mississippi River down to Vicksburg. This soon became very profitable for both sides; army officers, treasury agents, and individual speculators became involved, although Jews were distinctly a minority.

Army officers especially took advantage of the moneymaking possibilities to such a great extent that Lincoln complained, “the army itself is diverted from fighting rebels to speculating in cotton.” Although neither side prohibited the trade, President Lincoln ordered that all of the cotton that was traded had to be licensed by the Treasury Department and the Army. Each army commander was responsible for the cotton trade in their respective areas. General Ulysses S. Grant was the commander of the Department of the Tennessee, and therefore responsible for the licenses in that area. The limited trade in cotton and the overwhelming need for cotton in the Northern army led to soaring prices. This prompted many traders to bribe officials to be able to sell cotton without a permit. Jesse Grant, Grant’s father, took a prominent role in trading cotton and obtaining permits.

By the fall of 1862, trading was getting out of hand. Grant was annoyed that requests for licenses were distracting him from planning the capture of Vicksburg. Grant was getting an abundance of requests for licenses, and when Grant’s father sought them for a group of Cincinnati merchants, among whom were some Jews, the general issued his order. Although some of the traders were Jewish, most were not. Among the high ranks of the Union Army, the words “Jew,” “profiteer,” “speculator” and “trader” all meant the same thing (Feldberg, 118), while the Union commanding General Henry W. Halleck lumped together “traitors and Jew peddlers.” Grant concurred, describing Jews as “the Israelites,” an “intolerable nuisance.” It was because of old European prejudices and anti-Semitism that Jews were singled out. As in Europe, Jews were made scapegoats. History was repeating itself, but it this time it was in America.

On November 9 and 10, Grant sent his commanders in Jackson, Tennessee, orders that “no Jews are to be permitted to travel on the railroad southward [into the Department of the Tennessee] from any point.” Grant also noted his disdain for Jews to C.P. Wolcott, Assistant Secretary of the Army. He claimed Treasury regulations were being violated “mostly by Jews and other unprincipled traders.” (Feingold, 93) However, the illegal trading of cotton continued, and Grant continued to believe it was the fault of the Jewish merchants. On December 17, 1862, he issued Order 11:

“The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled from the department [the “Department of the Tennessee,” an administrative district of the Union Army of occupation composed of Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi] within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order. Post commanders will see to it that all of this class of people be furnished passes and required to leave, and any one returning after such notification will be arrested and held in confinement until an opportunity occurs of sending them out as prisoners unless furnished with permit from headquarters. No passes will be given these people to visit headquarters for the purpose of making personal application of trade permits.”

The order implied that all Jews in the region were speculators and traders, which they were not. Despite this, Grant’s subordinates carried out the order around his headquarters in Holly Springs and also Oxford, Mississippi, and Paducah, Kentucky where the Jews of these communities had to evacuate from their residences within a 24 hour period. In Holly Springs, the Jewish traders in the area had to walk 40 miles to evacuate the area. Thirty Jewish families who had been long time residents of the town also had to evacuate even though none of them engaged in the cotton speculation and two of them had been veterans of the Union Army.

The order caused an uproar and was criticized by both the Jewish community under Union command, and non-Jews in opposition to the Union’s Republicans. The anti-Semitic order was a shock for a Jewish community that had rarely been discriminated against. Democrats and others opposed to the administration believed the order represented another example of Lincoln’s willingness to trample on civil liberties. Peace Democrats complained that the Republicans were more concerned with the rights of blacks than of Jews, who were white. Jewish leaders organized protest rallies in St. Louis, Louisville and Cincinnati, while the leaders of the Jewish communities in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia sent telegrams to Lincoln protesting the order.

Residents of the expelled Jewish communities denounced the order. Cesar Kaskel, a merchant and president of the Paducah Union League, sent a telegram to Lincoln condemning Grant’s actions as an “enormous outrage on all laws and humanity, … the grossest violation of the Constitution and our rights as good citizens under it.” (Feldberg, 119) Kaskel also led a delegation to Washington to meet with Lincoln directly. He arrived in Washington just two days after the Emancipation Proclamation became law. Kaskel met with the prominent Jewish Republican, Adolphus Solomons, and was accompanied to the White House by Cincinnati Congressman John A. Gurley. They showed Lincoln documents proving that the Jews who had been expelled from their homes were upstanding citizens not involved in cotton speculation.

Lincoln ordered General Halleck, General in Chief of the Army, to revoke the order immediately. Halleck wrote to Grant on January 4, “A paper purporting to be General Orders, No. 11, issued by you December 17, has been presented here. By its terms, it expells [sic] all Jews from your department. If such an order has been issued, it will be immediately revoked.” Grant complied three days later, but the mass evacuation of the Jewish communities in Holly Springs and Oxford, Mississippi, and Paducah, Kentucky had already been carried out.

The Jewish community was grateful to President Lincoln for his swift revocation. On January 7, Rabbis Isaac M. Wise and Max Lilienthal of Cincinnati, Martin Bijur of Louisville, and Moses Strauss of Baltimore led delegations to Washington to express their gratitude to the President. Lincoln tried to make amends to the Jewish community. He said he had been surprised by Grant’s order and said he did not discriminate between Jews or Gentiles and would not allow any American to be discriminated against based on their religion. Lincoln told them he believed that “to condemn a class is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad. I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.”

General Order No. 11 was a rare instance of officially ordered anti-Semitism in American history, but just the fact that an order was signed and implemented punishing a religious community, as historian Henry Feingold states, “without due process of law,” put a spot on America’s reputation for religious tolerance. (Feingold, 94) It was an act more reminiscent of the anti-Semitism Jews endured in Europe for centuries, where without reason Jewish communities were expelled from towns and countries at a moment’s notice. The order revealed a disdain for Jews by high-ranking officials in the Union army among them Grant, William T. Sherman, and H. W. Halleck. It demonstrated that Jews in both the North and South were not sheltered from official anti-Semitism even in the safe haven of America.

Sources and further reading:

Henry L. Feingold, Zion in America: The Jewish Experience from Colonial Times to the Present, (Twayne Publishers, 1974).

Michael Feldberg, Blessings of Freedom: Chapters in American Jewish History, (KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 2002).

Bertram Wallace Korn, American Jewry and the Civil War, (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1951).

Meyer Weinberg, Because They Were Jews: A History of Anti-Semitism, (Greenwood Press, 1986).

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