Should it surprise us that John Kennedy came late to civil rights? After all, as a millionaire’s son in a society based on white privilege and racism he did well to reach the rational embrace of equality marked by his 1960 campaign phone calls comforting Coretta Scott King while assuring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s safety in jail.
Horrific brutality by Ku Klux Klan members, police officers and white citizens, sanctioned by business and civic leaders throughout the 1963 Birmingham struggles, provoked
JFK’s emotional response and nationally televised speech defining “a moral issue as old
as the Scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution” and producing legislation
blocked by Mississippi Senators John Stennis and James Eastland, South Carolina’s
Thurmond, Georgia’s Herman Talmadge and Richard Russell, who derived outsize
power from the Congressional seniority system.
Kennedy evolved in knowledge, insight and vision throughout his thousand days in the
White House. President George W. Bush, by contrast, still defends his disastrous Iraq
invasion with its false rationale. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton curtly
disavows her Senate vote authorizing that invasion as “a mistake pure and simple;
that’s it,” without explaining how that shapes her views on the future use of force in the
Middle East or elsewhere.
The thirty-fifth President was my hero from when I at seven years old helped my dad
distribute 1960 campaign leaflets on street corners of Manhattan’s Upper West Side
and when I sat on his shoulders through rain awaiting the candidate’s late-night October
rally appearance, JFK’s face posing on posters above the “Leadership for the 60s”
slogan. We left that night before Kennedy arrived –“his plane’s leaving Boston!,” then
“he’s in the air!” and “he’s landed!” breathless voices shouted — but I’ve savored the
spectacle for to childish eyes it seemed the whole world was there.
The President’s death hit hard. My fellow fifth grader Fern Bartner after lunch that
fateful day announced her mom said he’d been shot. Assistant Principal James Krug,
gruff and intimidating to kids, stood in a stairwell softly chanting “he’s gone” as we
passed past at dismissal. When classmate Vincent Van Hasselt walked with
me outside and asked what we should do we saluted the sky at my suggestion.
I went to my bedroom at home, shut the door, sat on the bed and stared at the wall
till my mom said dad had called from his office to speak to me. I lost my composure
and burst into tears when his warm voice said “it looks like we lost a friend.” Our
President was forty-five years old, my dad forty-four. That made JFK seem real.
My hero was slow to embrace civil rights but he did, as had Lincoln, the Great
Emancipator, who once claimed he would preserve the Union without ending slavery if
possible, to prevent border states from seceding.
Kennedy as a Cold War candidate warned of a dangerous “missile gap” but as
President negotiated a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union and at American
University’s August 1963 commencement called for coexistence in “a world made safe
He admitted error after the 1961 tragic Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba but learned from
experience. His steadfast resolve during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, overruling Air
Force Commandant Curtis LeMay and other advisers’ rash insistence on “surgical
bombing strikes,” and finding a way for Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev to save face
while authorizing a quarantine to halt Soviet missile launch preparation, averted nuclear
While Kennedy followed Truman and Eisenhower precedents in sending 16,000 military
advisers to South Vietnam, public records make clear that he would have withdrawn
them once reelected (virtually assured against right-wing Republican Senator Barry
Goldwater). It was President Johnson who ordered 250,000 ground troops there in
1965, which author David Halberstam called “the making of a quagmire.”
Was my hero perfect? Of course not. My children ask why I still admire Kennedy since
he betrayed his marriage vows. He matured as a leader, I say. He labored through
physical pain, foreign threats, Congressional resistance and crises at home and abroad,
crafting his vision till death.
With corruption in Afghanistan and chaos in Iraq we need a President of Kennedy’s
Idealism and integrity. His spirit of service should inspire us to address the economic
deprivation in urban communities of color that violence after last summer’s police
shootings revealed. His frank talk could confront institutional racism among
Congressional Republicans and challenge the Democrats’ timidity.
Our deep spiritual confidence that this nation will survive present perils — which
may well be with us for decades to come – compels us to invest in our nation’s future, to
consider and meet our obligations to our children and the numberless generations that
will follow,” President Kennedy said in 1962. I wonder what he would have achieved
and how he would have helped us had he lived.
He’s still my hero – and yours?
Michael McQuillan, former U.S. Senate aide and Peace Corps Volunteer and founding member of the Hope in the Cities National Network, teaches at the Expeditionary Learning School for Community Leaders in Brooklyn, New York. Photo via source.