Although his family name is synonymous with American political royalty, the 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, remains an iconic figure for a variety of memorable achievements over the course his career. As the nation remembers President Kennedy ahead of the 50th anniversary of his November 22 passing, NewsOne takes a look at a number of reasons why JFK still matters.
Although historians recall President Kennedy’s reluctance to enter the discussion of civil rights during a most-turbulent time for the country, he often reached out to the African-American community.
Now seen as a civil rights icon in many respects, President Kennedy’s public investment in equality for all American citizens was a tipping point for not only the Civil Rights Movement, but for the entire country.
Planting Seeds For Civil Rights Act Of 1964
Kennedy was wise to show measurable hesitation in involving himself in the struggles of Black Americans. At 43 years old — and the youngest president ever elected — the former Massachusetts senator and congressman didn’t want to alienate the White Southern Democratic base, which was vital to his re-election.
However, just hours after Gov. George Wallace ordered authorities to bar African-American students from enrolling at the University of Alabama, President Kennedy addressed the nation, regarding civil rights legislation, which would eventually become the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
From the June 11, 1963 address:
Today we are committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free. And when Americans are sent to Vietnam or West Berlin, we do not ask for Whites only. It ought to be possible, therefore, for American students of any color to attend any public institution they select without having to be backed up by troops.
This moment certainly became one of President Kennedy’s crowning moments and started a snowball effect of sorts.
But there were moments before that time when the President displayed shades of influence.
Alabama and Beyond
James Meredith was the first African-American student admitted in to the University of Mississippi in 1962. Inspired by President Kennedy’s inaugural speech, Meredith wanted his struggles of entering the school to inspire the Kennedy administration to address equal rights. The President’s brother, U.S. Attorney Robert F. Kennedy, placed a call to the state’s governor, Ross Barnett, who then allowed Meredith to enroll.
President Kennedy and his brother then sent military forces to the institution in order to quell a riot that was a result of Meredith’s admittance.
Alabama also figured prominently prior to the aforesaid University of Mississippi incident. In 1961, the President used his authority to offer protection to the “Freedom Riders” at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery with the help of U.S. Marshals. An angry White mob attempted to burn the building, which served as a hub for civil rights activists.
On September 15, 1962, President Kennedy signed into Executive Order the end of discrimination in federally funded housing organizations based on race, color, creed, or national origin. Later, the President signed into law the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which legally put an end to wage disparities between the sexes.
In 1963, the September 15th bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which killed four African-American girls, also elicited a response from the President who urged the country to “unite in steps toward peaceful progress” to avert further tragedy.
Other key moments of President Kennedy’s career was singing into Executive Order the establishment of the Peace Corps in 1961. President Kennedy’s 1963 speech in West Berlin was also a pivotal moment in marking him as a global leader worthy of the accolades he accumulated in his short time in the White House.
Man on the Moon Mission
On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy announced before a special joint session of Congress that he wanted the country’s space program to craft a mission to send a man safely to the moon. With Russia besting the United States in taking to the stars, Kennedy felt it was necessary to bolster the NASA program and make the hope a reality. Unfortunately, Kennedy would not live to see his dream, with Neil Armstrong taking the first steps on the moon in July 1969.
The Bond Between JFK And MLK
In 1960, just ahead of the presidential election, Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested after leading a peaceful protest in Atlanta. President Kennedy called Coretta Scott King to express his support, and his brother called the judge in order to obtain a release for the jailed civil rights leader. That interaction led to a glowing endorsement from King and landed Kennedy a large majority of the Black vote.
Another significant connection President Kennedy allegedly had with Dr. King involved the March on Washington. Civil rights leaders, such as Malcolm X, speculated that even though President Kennedy and his administration were allegedly hesitant to host the historic March on Washington in August 1963, they reportedly controlled the march from behind the scenes.”
Cuba and the Missile Crisis
Relations between the United States and Cuba have been strained for decades, and many point to the infamous Bay Of Pigs invasion as the catalyst. In April 1961, President Kennedy, acting on the advice of strategists, armed 1,500 Cuban exiles with American military weapons and training. The exile forces were handily defeated and many Americans were killed. Kennedy admitted to his folly and changed his stance from that point going forward on military matters.
In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis showed that President Kennedy learned well from his mistakes in the botched Cuba invasion. After discovering Soviet officials were constructing nuclear weapons on the islands, President Kennedy realized the necessity of a new strategy. Sending a fleet of ships to surround Cuba, the United States and Cuba negotiated peacefully, and missile production on the island ceased based on a promise of no invasion.
A global crisis was averted, but highlighted a deeper arms race was afoot. The Cold War, the decades-long and now-defunct period of tension between the superpowers of the United States and Russia, would rise from that point on.
Death and Legacy
President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22 in Dallas, Texas, presumably by Lee Harvy Oswald. Many theories surround Kennedy’s death, with Oswald stating he never pulled the trigger and he was never charged. Jack Ruby, a Texas nightclub owner, shot and killed Oswald as he was being escorted to jail. The murder was broadcast on national television, and some claim the happenings of Kennedy’s death and the involvement of Ruby was part of an elaborate cover up.
In the 50 years since President Kennedy’s passing at age 46, the changes he boldly embraced in the country came to fruition. Still, one wonders what he would make of the still pervasive specter of racial injustice and discrimination that plague the country despite the achievements that people of color and women have made since his time.