Not surprisingly, civil rights became a major issue in the 1960 presidential campaign. Although Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon would not admit his support publicly for fear of alienating southern conservatives, Democrat John F. Kennedy embraced the student-led sit-ins, mentioning them in his campaign speeches. Kennedy’s support of the movement won him the vast majority of black votes in the North, contributing significantly to his victory over Nixon that year.
Kennedy’s victory was bittersweet: even though he won the presidency, Republicans and southern conservative Democrats triumphed in Congress, severely limiting Kennedy’s ability to pass civil rights legislation. Nonetheless, Kennedy was able to create the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity to help end racial discrimination in the federal government and strengthened the civil rights division at the Justice Department. He also ordered his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, to support civil rights activism as much as he could.
Kennedy’s opportunity to demonstrate presidential support for the civil rights movement came the following year. In 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality organized a biracial Freedom Ride on interstate buses traveling through the South. CORE hoped that the Freedom Ride would provoke a reaction from segregationists just as the student-led sit-ins had, with public harassment, arrests, and widespread media attention. However, CORE also hoped that the publicity and arrests would force the Kennedys to intervene.
Black and white Freedom Riders left Washington, D.C., in May 1961 and faced only mild opposition until they met a mob of white supremacists ten days later in Alabama. The mob torched the bus and assaulted the Freedom Riders on board, nearly killing two of them. Another segregationist mob attacked them again in Birmingham as police looked on. Wounded and unsuccessful, the riders returned to the North and let the SNCC Freedom Riders take over. These new riders encountered severe opposition in Montgomery, Alabama, where yet another mob attacked the students. Police eventually arrested the SNCC Freedom Riders on charges of disturbing the peace.
Just as the protesters had hoped, the mob violence and police inaction in Birmingham and Montgomery outraged President Kennedy and were a major embarrassment for the U.S. government. In response, Kennedy sent 400 federal agents to prevent further violence in Montgomery and pushed the Interstate Commerce Commission to clarify its regulations regarding segregation on interstate buses. The success of the CORE and SNCC Freedom Rides prompted chapter organizations to sponsor their own rides in the Deep South throughout the 1960s.
A year after the Freedom Rides, yet another segregation crisis occurred at the University of Mississippi, prompting the president once again to act on behalf of civil rights activists. A federal court ordered the university to admit James Meredith, the university’s first black transfer student. As Arkansas governor Orval Faubus had refused to allow black students to attend an all-white high school in 1957, Mississippi governor Ross Barnett and state officials refused to let Meredith enter the university.