On April 25, 1963 — 60 years ago — Robert F. Kennedy spoke at a meeting of the University of South Carolina chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). He was invited by chapter leaders who were interested in advancing the conversation about civil rights on campus and in the state. While Kennedy gave several commencement speeches, this one to a group of professors was unusual for him or for any attorney general.
One of the issues Kennedy discussed is familiar today: the problem of racism. The reaction from some community members is similarly familiar: President Thomas Jones received letters asking him to cancel the event and newspaper editorials criticized the decision to host the attorney general. Instead of canceling the event, Jones gave introductory remarks and a warm welcome.
Footage from USC’s Moving Images Research Collection (MIRC) shows Kennedy making one of his most powerful points: A Black child born in the U.S. has a substantially less chance of finishing high school or college or of entering a higher earning profession than a white child. He argued that “We as a nation have no choice but to make progress toward full equality of opportunity.” This must be done, he says, quoting his brother, President John F. Kennedy, because “it is right” and because we are a people “moved by moral force.”
There are other reasons to eliminate racial discrimination, Kennedy explained, including the practical needs of the nation and to improve the country’s standing in the world where the treatment of Black was a source of scorn internationally. But such practical issues aside, he argued America faced a “moral issue” and the nation should rise to the challenge, “even if we could live in isolation from the rest of the world.”
The problem of racial discrimination and inequality is not limited to the South alone, he explained but was one for the entire nation. “The troubles we see now, agitation and even bloodshed, will not compare to what we will see a decade from now unless real progress is made.” His words were sadly prophetic. Within the decade after his speech, entrenched segregation, poverty and police brutality in northern cities fueled successive summers of urban uprisings and riots.
But in the spring of 1963, the civil rights movement was moving towards historic achievements in the South. Kennedy praised Clemson University for its peaceful desegregation earlier that year with the admission of Harvey Gantt. USC would desegregate less than five months later (for a second time, having been integrated during Reconstruction) and the Gamecock Editorial Board argued that even if students were opposed to the integration of the campus, they should allow it to happen peacefully.
In his speech 60 years ago Kennedy, emphasized the urgency of the moment. “Now time is running out fast for this country.” Civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965 would bring an end to the Jim Crow system, but racial inequities and divisions beyond the reach of legislative remedy ignited a racial reckoning that continues to this day.
Kennedy’s words from 1963 speak to our current moment. “We live today in an era of challenge. This is the time of uncertainty and peril; it is also a time of great opportunity.”