“It should be clear by now that a nation can be no stronger abroad than she is at home. Only an America which practices what it preaches about equal rights and social justice will be respected by those whose choice affects our future. Only an America which has fully educated its citizens is fully capable of tackling the complex problems and perceiving the hidden dangers of the world in which we live.” – From the speech President John F. Kennedy planned to deliver on November 22, 1963.
I was a brand new law school graduate in my first months of work with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York City on that fateful November day 50 years ago. I had begun the day visiting a young Black male death row client in a rural Georgia prison accused of killing a White farmer and had returned to Atlanta where I was sitting in a courthouse library researching how many Blacks and Whites had been executed in Georgia’s history. When a White man burst in grinning and shouting loudly, “Hot damn, they got him,” it took me a moment to realize he was talking about President Kennedy. I rushed with others to the nearest television set to see the news and could barely get away quickly enough from the hateful glee of some of the White citizens surrounding me. The memory of their celebration still makes me sick.
So much of the deep lingering sadness over President Kennedy’s assassination is about the unfinished promise – unspoken speeches, unfulfilled hopes, the wondering about what might have been.
President Kennedy would not be the last leader or citizen who stood up for equal justice to be slain. His death and others that followed remind us that our dreams and commitment to justice cannot depend on a single leader or be destroyed if one, a few, or many are lost to acts of hate and violence. The Civil Rights Movement continued. We must always refill and ensure there is a critical mass of leaders and activists committed to nonviolence and racial and economic justice who will keep seeding and building transforming movements. When one leader passes many more must be ready to step up to the plate and keep working to ensure a more just America and world.
When President Kennedy was elected, many Black Americans, like so many Americans, were captivated by his youth and energy and promise and were especially hopeful that he might move the country in a new direction on civil rights.
President Kennedy grew as he saw the massive violent resistance to change of some Southern Whites unfolding before him that would not go away and realized that the pent-up demand for freedom also would not go away. The burning of a Greyhound bus in Alabama and attacks not only on Freedom Riders but on a federal government official forced his hand. And he, like so many other Americans, was repulsed by the scenes that flashed across television screens of police dogs and fire hoses attacking Black children and youths who challenged Bull Connor’s and the Birmingham establishment’s Jim Crow policies. We saw and must not forget how courageous and sustained actions from ordinary citizens fed up with injustice can inspire, provoke, and push political leadership at the top.
President Kennedy responded to the movement’s persistent and sacrificial actions with passion and major action of his own. He made an eloquent speech to the nation on June 11, 1963 and sent a landmark civil rights bill to Congress one week later. The nationally- televised speech he gave introducing the bill once again inspired many Americans to share his vision that America could and must be better. His tragic death created a political climate that, combined with President Lyndon Johnson’s masterful political leadership, resulted in enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – the latter pushed by civil rights demonstrations in Selma.
Fifty years later, and after the deaths of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner, and countless other nonviolent warriors for justice, the fight against intolerance, violence, and hatred in America is far from over.
So I hope, as we remember a young President who asked us not to ask what our country can do for us but what we can do for our country, that we will renew our commitment to building with urgency and persistence a just America where every child is valued and enabled to achieve their God given potential regardless of the lottery of birth.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.