According to this transcription of Martin Luther King's I have a dream-address, he used negro 15 times in his speech, as a neutral word for black people.

Did/could "leading", documented non-racist, white people use negro in the same way around this time, as a neutral word for black Americans?

With "leading" I mean top politicians like LBJ and JFK, their ministers, governors and similar. With "documented non-racist" I mean for example LBJ and his support for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It is hard to pin down "documented non-racist" in a good way, but I am referring to people who no "reasonable" person ever would suspect having some dubious views regarding this matter.

An answer that includes references to specific speeches, interviews, articles and similar sources is appreciated.

I am curious about the historical usage of the word negro in different groups in society, hence my question.

  • 9
    "documented non-racist" - LBJ?! My understanding is that he used the N-word as well as other racially charged terms such as "boy" and "uppity" when referring to Black people.
    – shoover
    Nov 15, 2020 at 2:07
  • 1
    The question in the title appears to be about modern usage of a word (more of a English Language & Usage question than a History question). Or do you mean contemporary to him?
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 15, 2020 at 2:46
  • 2
    @Greg You are mixing upp negro and nigger. It is very much not the same word.
    – d-b
    Nov 15, 2020 at 10:16
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    @justCal Thank you. That is pretty interesting, Malcom X was, in any reasonable sense of the word, an extremist and yet managed to influence how people in the mainstream as well as centrist politicians used the language.
    – d-b
    Nov 15, 2020 at 17:22
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    LBJ specifically learned to say "nigro" as it was considered a more polite word than the native East Texas word he grew up with with a schwa sound on the final vowel. It can be heard in multiple presidential speeches as well as on the White House tapes. His accent shortened the first vowel from an "ee" to a short "i". JFK can also be heard in speeches saying the more conventional Northern "negro".
    – Mike
    Nov 16, 2020 at 0:57

3 Answers 3


There is a Wikipedia article for the word Negro, which may shed some light on the issue. Within that article is a section on the history of the use of the word in the US. It appears the usage by MLK is at the end of the time period where the word Negro was more accepted (emphasis mine):

"Negro" was accepted as normal, both as exonym and endonym, until the late 1960s, after the later Civil Rights Movement. One well-known example is the identification by Martin Luther King, Jr. of his own race as "Negro" in his famous "I Have a Dream" speech of 1963.

and that it fell out of acceptable use after the Civil Rights Movement:

some black American leaders, notably Malcolm X, objected to the word Negro because they associated it with the long history of slavery, segregation, and discrimination that treated African Americans as second class citizens, or worse.

Note that since this is listed as 'normal' terminology for the time, and also

both as exonym and endonym

we can infer that the word Negro was used by white politicians.

A quick search brings up a speech by LBJ, March 16, 1965.

There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans--not as Democrats or Republicans-we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.

[The word Negro appears 11 times in this speech.]

Another speech, this time by JFK, on June 11, 1963 has the following:

The Negro baby born in America today, regardless of the section of the Nation in which he is born, has about one-half as much chance of completing a high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day, one-third as much chance of completing college, one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man, twice as much chance of becoming unemployed, about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year, a life expectancy which is 7 years shorter, and the prospects of earning only half as much.

[The word Negro appears 12 times in this speech.]

So we can see that both individuals you cite as your examples used the word Negro in public address during the time frame noted. It was just another word.

  • Thank you. But I am interested in the usage among the white, non-racist, elite, before it fell out of use.
    – d-b
    Nov 16, 2020 at 9:49
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    Updated with examples.
    – justCal
    Nov 16, 2020 at 13:18

To separate people cleanly into "racist" and "non-racist" does not reflect reality, and certainly doesn't reflect the reality of JFK or LBJ. They both did a lot of good towards racial justice, but they certainly were both racist in their own ways. But if you want an example that educated white people with strong anti-racist reputations used the word "Negro" in the early 1960s, here's Genevieve Hughes (a Cornell-educated white woman who was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders) describing her experience of being firebombed on a bus in Alabama in 1961 for riding a bus in an integrated group:

There was no doctor at the hospital, only a nurse. They had me breathe pure oxygen but that only burned my throat and did not relieve the coughing. I was burning hot and my clothes were a wet mess. After awhile Ed and Bert were brought in, choking. We all lay on our beds and coughed. Finally, a woman doctor came in—she had to look up smoke poisoning before treating us. They brought in the Negro man who had been in the back of the bus with me. I pointed to him and told them to take care of him. But they did not bring him into our emergency room. I understand that they did not do anything at all for Hank. Thirteen in all were brought in, and three were admitted: Ed, the Negro man and myself. They gave me a room and I slept. When I woke up the nurse asked me if I could talk with the FBI. The FBI did not care about us, but only the bombing.

(justCal's answer already explains how this language usage came to change in the later 60s and 70s, so I won't repeat that.)


Sum it up "Negro" was the word. Before the 1920's it was "Colored" W.E.B. Du Bois, along with Booker T. Washington advocated for replacing with "Negro" After the 1920's. In the 80's after the black power movement faded, many of it's leaders decided another semantic change was required. Jesse Jackson led the push toward African-American. But, so far, the change does not seem to have the same momentum black and Af american are pretty much in congruence, given the propensity for verbal laziness, black seems fine

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