As we pause to reflect on this, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, it is important to disentangle the man from the myth in order to appreciate the 35th president’s complex but important legacy.
In a year of otherwise triumphant memorials, including the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy is a stark contrast. There is no happy conclusion or grand triumph to be taken away from his killing. The shots that rang out in Dallas claiming his life plunged the nation into the deepest mourning, resulting in the highly controversial Warren Commission investigation that still inspires intense debate and discussion. Simultaneously, his tragic death gave birth to the notion of Camelot, the greatly exaggerated view that his killing represented an end of innocence for a nation, wide-eyed and hopeful and largely immune from the bitter sting of political violence.
These ideas persist in contrast to the reality of Kennedy’s life and times. While personally popular, for instance, Kennedy entered the White House with less than a two-percentage point margin of victory in the popular vote. Without a clear mandate from the people, he agonized over how every decision might affect his chances for re-election.
His presidency also witnessed a succession of emergencies both at home and abroad that called the young president’s leadership into question. At times, the administration seemed to proceed on the basis of crisis management rather than a clear agenda. The brutal savagery visited upon civil rights demonstrators across the South led to a steady decline in American prestige abroad, occasioned both by civil rights domestically and American adventuring abroad, i.e. the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, not to mention the Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union brought painfully to bear on the administration during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
By the time Kennedy arrived in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 and despite his high approval ratings, there were some who considered his presidency a disaster. There are many who still do.
Nevertheless, in death, Kennedy’s image was largely rehabilitated. The nation fixed its gaze not on the crises and conflict, but on the portrait of a young and idealistic president cut down in his prime. They regretted what might have been rather than the reality of what was a very rocky tenure.
Remembering, selectively or otherwise, of course, is always a form of forgetting. Lost in the illusion of Camelot, is the historical JFK, flawed but full of lessons for the present. These are lessons that should both remind and encourage us to evaluate the role of executive leadership in a democracy.
Clearly, in his scant 34 months in office, President Kennedy did not transform the nation, but he made Americans believe that transformation was possible. Although the crises he faced often took center stage, he fashioned an agenda, which while cautious in critical areas such as civil rights, was also forward looking, such as the New Frontier. By no means was it a traditional political agenda. Kennedy instead defined it as “a set of challenges.”
“It sums up,” he explained in his Democratic nomination acceptance speech in July of 1960, “not what I intend to offer to the American people, but what I intend to ask of them….For courage, not complacency,” he continued, “is our need today; leadership, not salesmanship. And the only valid test of leadership is the ability to lead, and lead vigorously.”
Over the course of his brief administration and in the years beyond it, Americans embraced Kennedy’s call. Individuals like civil rights activist Ella Baker and groups like Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference led on civil rights, often to the annoyance of Washington, with the keen sense that ending segregation was one of the nation’s great challenges and priorities. Women like future Connecticut Gov. Ella Grasso, who served on the Democratic Platform Drafting Committee in 1960, likewise pursued gender equality in a way that affirmed the president’s call for action.
They did so not by waiting for leadership from Washington but by seizing the opportunity to create a new social and political landscape.
While Kennedy cannot and should not be credited for their activism, he did help set the tone for a decade of significant growth and change. Looking back 50 years, one can read Kennedy’s remarks as an endorsement of a genuine democracy: citizen participation not controlled by or directed from Washington but as a natural outgrow of an inclusive process. It is a process in which all Americans, regardless of race, class, gender or sexuality have the opportunity to work collectively toward shaping a country and a world they can all take pride in, a true alliance for progress.
Even as the eternal flame burns ceaselessly in his memory at Arlington National Cemetery, it is also a reminder that the fires of hope and the promise of a just democracy are not meant to shine light on the dead but illuminate a path for the living. While a mythologized Kennedy serves no other function but to perpetuate a contrived history, Kennedy’s own powerful rhetoric should remind us that the pursuit of a true democracy based on justice transcends the life or work of any politician or leader.
Dr. Yohuru Williams is chair and professor of history at Fairfield University and the author of Black Politics/White Power: Civil Rights, Black Power and Black Panthers in New Haven. Twitter: @yohuruwilliams