The writer, of Omaha, turned 17 the day President John F. Kennedy was slain and has studied the assassination and the former president’s life in the years since.
Fifty years have passed since that horrid day in Dallas, and my interest over those years has shifted from the forensics surrounding his assassination to a more informed understanding of President John F. Kennedy’s life, its meaning and importance.
In the end, I rediscovered the source of my admiration for the man and all that he offered a world spilling over with racial and gender inequality; a world in 1963 simultaneously plagued by the prospect of nuclear annihilation and buoyed by the remarkable gains being made in scientific and engineering circles.
Understanding the JFK legacy comes most readily from two speeches delivered less than six months before his death: the so-called “Peace Speech” to the graduating class at American University in June 1963, and his civil rights speech the following day.
In his peace speech, Kennedy pressed all of us to reconsider the historical mind-set that war is inevitable and that sustainable peace is unachievable. Asserting the absurdity of modern warfare, he was pragmatic.
He was not seeking “absolute, infinite concepts of universal peace.” Instead, he asked us to look inside ourselves, to reframe our attitudes toward the inevitability of violent human conflict by constructing a system of institutions and agreements that might serve as a framework for resolving international conflict. He reminded us that “our problems are manmade” and therefore resolvable through the actions of men.
Kennedy’s enthusiasm for the renewal of efforts to institutionalize mechanisms of international cooperation in pursuit of peace was rousing. His message was embraced with enthusiasm on a global scale, and his call to a different kind of arms restored hope in the wake of a bloody and violent half-century.
Less than 48 hours later, Kennedy appeared on national television and asked American citizens to look inside themselves, to revisit the question of civil rights and the deplorable living conditions of so many millions of Americans a full century after Lincoln guaranteed their freedom. The speech was triggered by the need to protect the rights of “two clearly qualified young Alabama residents who happened to have been born Negro” to attend the University of Alabama.
He became the first president to fully embrace the civil rights movement, engaging viewers with his hope “that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents.”
Kennedy asked this simple but profound question: “If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?”
It is against this backdrop, late at night, when introspection gains a foothold on our conscious lives, that those of us who can’t forget, those of us whose vision of a new order died with John F. Kennedy 50 years ago today, are most troubled. There was the disquieting crack of rifle fire, the confusion and chaos of an otherwise spectacular sun-drenched noon hour in Dallas. Then it was over for him — but not for us.
The tragedy galvanized a generation.
We can never know if Kennedy could have delivered on his promise to take us boldly into a future defined more by humanism than callousness and cruelty, by a spirit of internationalism rather than mistrust and fear. But we do know where he hoped to take us.
In a speech that was never delivered in Dallas, he was to urge Americans to seek peace over aggression, to champion responsible leadership over self-interest, reminding us that: “We, in this country, in this generation, are — by destiny rather than by choice — the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of ‘peace on earth, goodwill toward men.’”
Those were the unspoken parting words of a man whose life was a complex algorithm of risk-taking that bordered on recklessness, and of calculating, tempered leadership, a man who sought peace and died violently on the streets of Dallas.