It was an event that seared itself into our memories. On Nov. 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. Kennedy served less than three years but his legacy is still impacting the world. He passed ground-breaking legislation and put our country on the path of fulfilling many of the ideals we had not yet achieved.
Kennedy’s administration moved aggressively to promote civil rights. The Eisenhower administration had taken positive steps in the right direction, but it was moving too slowly for many African-Americans. In a May 13, 1958 letter to Eisenhower, baseball great Jackie Robinson wrote, “I was sitting in the audience at the Summit Meeting of Negro Leaders yesterday when you said we must have patience. On hearing you say this, I felt like standing up and saying, ‘Oh no! Not again.’”
Kennedy understood this urgency. On June 11, 1963, Kennedy called for legislation “giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public—hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments.” The result was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ending racial segregation in schools and other places.
In that same speech Kennedy called for “greater protection for the right to vote.” He passed legislation supporting voting rights, culminating in the 24th Amendment, passed in Sept. 1962 and ratified in 1964. These laws helped move us closer to our ideal of “all men are created equal.”
The Peace Corps program was established by Kennedy on March 1, 1961, and authorized by Congress on Sept. 21, 1961. The idea behind the Peace Corps was “To promote world peace and friendship… [through] men and women of the United States...willing to serve, under conditions of hardship if necessary, to help the peoples of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower.” So far, more than 210,000 Americans have served in 139 countries.
On May 25, 1961, Kennedy proposed a bold plan of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” On July 20, 1969, this goal was accomplished. As with many of his goals, Kennedy did not live to see its fulfillment, but this achievement will be part of his legacy forever.
Kennedy worked with the governments of the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom to propose and pass the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963. This was a major advance in slowing the arms race and reducing the amount of nuclear fallout in the earth’s atmosphere, a byproduct of the above-ground testing done for years. It wasn’t an end to the Cold War, but it was a huge step forward.
One of the incentives for this treaty was the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Volumes have been written about this event, but the result was that both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. recognized we had come far too close to all-out nuclear war, and neither country wanted that. Kennedy knew well what war cost.
In his inaugural address, Kennedy famously said, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” These were not just words. The Kennedy family lived this quote; they sacrificed three sons to the service of this country. Joseph Kennedy Jr., 29, was killed in action in WW II. John Kennedy’s PT boat was sunk by the Japanese. John and Robert Kennedy were eventually assassinated. The Kennedy patriotism was tested and proved genuine.
Kennedy had many imperfections, but he didn’t think that being born into wealth and power meant he was somehow superior to others. He recognized a responsibility to give back and he accepted that responsibility. He believed “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”
During his time in office, Kennedy accomplished much more than the achievements described. We will never know what else he might have done if he had lived. We do know that he inspired a generation of young people to serve their country, to look outward and not inward, to focus on others and not themselves. This philosophy is hard to find today. Maybe looking back on Kennedy’s legacy will inspire a new generation to see what they can do for our country. Maybe we can get past the selfishness that grips so many and reclaim that spirit of patriotism and sacrifice. That would be the best legacy Kennedy could leave us.
Jeanette Strong is a Fallon columnist.