It was the worst day in American history. For almost three years, we had had a man with a unique historical perspective, with an independent place to stand, in a position to make real changes. We stood at the crossroads of two very different paths, and he knew where he wanted to take us, and he knew how to do it, and he knew how to bring the people along with him. And then – and therefore – he was murdered, in cold blood, in broad daylight, in front of the crowds that were cheering him, and everything changed.
I’m not going to write about the fact that he was killed by a conspiracy, nor who the members were, nor their motives. It’s all on the record, for any who want to know. If I pieced it together by long widespread and judicious reading, you can too. Instead on this 50th anniversary of the crime, I want to look at Kennedy’s vision for the United States and for the world, as it can be deduced from his words and actions.
What didn’t happen can’t be mapped. But if you look at what he did in his short time, the man’s course can be plotted., and we can get a sense of what the nation and the world lost as a result of a criminal conspiracy to murder him, followed by another conspiracy to cover up the truth of who was responsible.
JFK came reluctantly to the civil rights cause , but when it attained the dimensions of a national movement, he moved with the times. He pushed for Civil Rights legislation, as in this eloquent address to the nation in the wake of disturbances in the south, trying to awaken people’s best instincts, at a time when others were appealing to their worst, as for instance in this speech after disturbances in Birmingham, Alabama, June 11, 1963.
(You can hear and see his speech here. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4cSrvqYKQH8)
A couple of excerpts:
“I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents. This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”
And this: “The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. 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? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?”
And this, which sums it up, and which I have never forgotten since the night I heard it: “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.” It doesn’t get any simpler than that. No one can misunderstand it except by choosing to misunderstand it.
But does all this mean that if JFK had been allowed to live, we would have seen the same things we lived through in the later 1960s? I don’t think so. JFK was far too cautious, too rooted in history, to think that massive federal involvement was the answer to all problems. The New Frontier was aimed at expanding individual liberty and prosperity. It was not proposed to reshape society. People today forget that he was as bitterly criticized from the left for his caution as he was from the right for his willingness to accept change. He knew that too much change, too fast, was as dangerous and as unsustainable as too little change, too slow. He was far too experienced and skeptical to entertain grandiose ideas. It was Lyndon Johnson, not John F. Kennedy, who thought he could overcome all of society’s problems by massively increasing federal involvement in all manner of things.
And you will notice that the rioting in the streets, which began in 1965 in the Watts district of Los Angeles, and turned to robbery, arson and murder, and spread to all our major cities and a lot of minor ones, did not happen on Kennedy’s watch. In the years 1961 through 1963, black protests were nearly uniformly peaceful and constructive, from the Freedom Riders through the 1963 March on Washington. In those years, such racial violence as occurred was fomented and carried out by whites.
Does that mean that the rioting would not have occurred had Kennedy been allowed to live to be re-elected, as he nearly certainly would have been? No one can say. The revolution of rising expectations would not have been fueled by the unrealistic promises of the Johnson years, and there wouldn’t have been a Vietnam war feeding the flames. We’ll never know.