At the height of the Cold War, racial tensions in the United States were also reaching a breaking point. This era brought with it many of the seminal events in civil-rights history: the start of the Freedom Rides in 1961, the University of Mississippi’s admission of its first black student, and the Birmingham riots of 1963. While America struggled with the ever-present threat of nuclear war, this other kind of conflict threatened to undermine and demoralize America from within.
It is 11 June, 1963, and the Alabama National Guardsmen are called to the University of Alabama to ensure the safe admission of two black students. That same afternoon, John F. Kennedy addresses the nation in an attempt to sooth flared tempers on both sides of the debate. Despite the limited time for preparation, “… it was one of his best speeches–a heartfelt appeal in behalf of a moral cause that included several memorable lines calling upon the country to honor its finest traditions” (Dallek). Indeed, part of this heartfelt spirit is likely derived from the relative spontaneity of the speech. Nevertheless, Kennedy is well-recognized as skilled in his use of language (Renehan), and purposefully employs several methods to create his appeals.
In his “Civil Rights Address,” he speaks mainly of the responsibility of Americans, their duty to ensure the freedom and equality of all American citizens. Through allusion he stresses the hollowness of freedom in a culture of segregation. He uses an authoritative tone, but also uses diction that emphasizes his status as a like citizen. He lets his presidency work in the minds of his audience to influence them. He refers to documents that the audience, especially at the time, would consider sacred and important. His statistics reveal the deplorable gap in living standards and education opportunities between blacks and whites. Kennedy's speech is persuasive and trenchant, particularly because his arguments appeal so strongly to the patriotic spirit of Americans.
His overarching theme is indeed one that patriotic Americans would value dearly, a theme of equality. Beginning with his second paragraph, Kennedy implores the American public to consider their personal standing on the race issue that was stifling the nation. In doing so, he also reminds his audience of the basic founding principle of the United States, as set out by the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal.” These words were calculated to resound deeply with the public; in the midst of the Cold War, America found its identity in its equality and freedoms. By immediately associating blacks with this phrase of “all men”, he leaves no room in his audience's mind for ambiguity. He uses this common identity of a free nation in order to argue on behalf of the black community. Kennedy does not allow the audience to read the Declaration as “all men like us.” He challenges them to consider all people, black or white, to be deserving of freedom.