Visionaries Never Go Out of Style JKF@100

By Sarah Becker ©2017

Born in 1917—100 years ago—President John F. Kennedy (D-MA) died in his prime. On November 22, 1963 an assassin shot Kennedy dead. He died of a wound in the brain caused by a rifle bullet. Kennedy was the fourth U.S. President to succumb to such wounds.

For Kennedy, the past was prologue. It included wealth: he received a $1 million trust fund from his father in 1938. Also education: Kennedy studied at the London School of Economics in 1935, and graduated cum laude from Harvard University in 1940. His first book, While England Slept, was published in 1940 at age 23.

He took his first political step in 1946. Kennedy represented Massachusetts 11th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1947 to 1953, elected to the US Senate in 1952, and passed over as a Vice Presidential nominee in 1956.

On August 24, 1960 candidate Kennedy launched the southern leg of his Presidential campaign from Alexandria, Virginia. The Alexandria Gazette reported:

“With presidential candidate Kennedy in the fore…politicos…will stage what promises to be the largest political rally ever held in the city of Alexandria. The rally sponsors…hope that spacious George Washington High School stadium, which seats 14,000 persons, will be jam-packed to a standing room only condition.”

“The affair will launch the Democrats’ national campaign in the south…The oratory, to which all else was a prelude, indicated the issues which will be most stressed…these bore down on the experience of [his opponent] Richard M. Nixon, the matter of foreign policy and the Communist threat. It avoided the grating problems of [a divided] political party…the [Democrat] Party platform on civil rights and sociological issues.” Virginia Dixiecrats “deplored the Democratic Party’s reckless disregard for constitutionality; principles in the Civil Rights Plank and inflationary Federal spending.”

“The Republican orators are fond of saying that experience in foreign policy is a major issue in this campaign,” Senator Kennedy told the Stadium crowd. “I agree. But the issue is not merely the experience of the candidates. It is the experience which the whole Nation has gone through in the last 8 years…”

“Never before have we experienced such arrogant treatment at the hands of our enemy,” Kennedy continued. “Never before have we experienced such a critical decline in our prestige, driving our friends to neutralism, and neutrals to our outright hostility. Never before have the tentacles of communism sunk so deeply into previously friendly areas—in Iraq and the Middle East, in the Congo and Africa, in Laos and Asia, and in Cuba, 90 miles off our shores, and elsewhere in Latin America.”

“Mr. Nixon is experienced—experienced in politics of retreat, defeat, and weakness.” Kennedy concluded. “The facts are there. They must be faced. The answers are not easy.” Governor J. Lindsay Almond described the launch as “the most enthusiastic rally of my political experience in Virginia.”

President-elect John F. Kennedy was welcomed to office in November 1960. At age 43 JFK was the youngest President ever elected; also the first Roman Catholic. He argued separation of church and state, eschewed McCarthyism, and defeated Richard M. Nixon.

Kennedy, a pragmatic liberal, also defeated Virginia Dixiecrat, Southern Conservative Democrat Harry F. Byrd, Sr. “Byrd offered usual denunciations of the Supreme Court, civil rights legislation, Federal spending and foreign aid,” The Washington Post reported.

Like Presidents Truman and Eisenhower before, Kennedy understood the geopolitical changes associated with World War II. In 1943 an injured JFK received the Navy and Marine Corps medal for his military conduct while commander of the PT-109, a boat sunk in the Pacific by the Japanese. Two years later citizen and Hearst reporter John F. Kennedy walked the Berlin ruins with Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed,” President Kennedy said on January 20, 1961.

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty,” Kennedy continued. Communism was the enemy, freedom the goal.

As President, Kennedy challenged the Soviets in Cuba; then to a space race. “Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors,” Kennedy exclaimed. “Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage arts and commerce.”

Kennedy witnessed the east-west construction of Germany’s Berlin Wall; embraced an emerging Third World and established The Peace Corps. “To those new States whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny,” Kennedy continued.

President Kennedy signed the women’s Equal Pay Act and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. “Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms—and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the control of all nations,” Kennedy declared.

Kennedy commemorated the Civil War centennial and welcomed leaders of the Negro March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. “The main target of the demonstration was Congress, where committees are now considering the Administration’s civil rights bill,” The New York Times reported. “The legislation faces a filibuster by Southerners.”

“The civil rights bill sent to Congress by President Kennedy was the most comprehensive package of civil rights proposals since Reconstruction,” Andrew Young wrote 1996. “The Birmingham movement had given civil rights the moral high ground, but the crafting of legislation was in the hands of the Justice Department and the NAACP’s Clarence Mitchell.”

“So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof,” Kennedy concluded. “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.”

“In looking back I would say that I have never regretted my choice of profession, even though I cannot know what the future will bring,” candidate Kennedy told Cannon. Kennedy married Jacqueline Bouvier in1953 and received the Pulitzer-prize for Profiles in Courage in 1957. His last book, A Nation of Immigrants, was published posthumously in 1964.

Only his daughter Ambassador Caroline Bouvier Kennedy [Mrs. Edwin Schlossberg] lives on. President and Mrs. Kennedy are buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007. Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com

Comments

  1. Craig Taylor says:

    I don’t know if Becker’s reference “Negro March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” stems from ignorance or sloppy scholarship, but in any regard that historic march is known variously as March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom or the March on Washington or The Great March on Washington. And it must be noted that Kennedy was initially opposed to the march and tried to discourage it.

  2. Multiple references refer to the March by the title used in this month’s column. It is the title published in the day, a reference many of that and later generations now find offensive. That said, it is correct … historically correct ….not stupid, sloppy or ignorant. Various newspapers, Kennedy tapes, etc. confirm the accuracy of the statement.

    Was Kennedy opposed to the Civil Rights Act? No! That said, Lyndon Johnson did expand Kennedy’s version of the civil rights bill. I ask Mr. Taylor to remember that Congressman Howard Worth Smith Sr. (D-VA8), southern conservative Democrat and Chairman of the House Rules Committee, was an ardent segregationist. No Virginia Congressman voted in favor of the Civil Rights Act.

    What Kennedy did not have was Johnson’s previous Congressional experience; his coalition building ability. In the end, it was President Lyndon Johnson and U.S. Senator Everett Dirksen (R-IL) who together assembled the “power” vote. Should Mr. Taylor think this answer stupid, sloppy and or ignorant then I refer him to Lyndon Johnson’s autobiography The Vantage Point.

  3. Craig Taylor says:

    Historian Taylor Branch on Kennedy and the March on Washington:

    TAYLOR BRANCH: Well, President Kennedy was very nervous about the march and wished that it would not go forward. If it had been up to him, there wouldn’t have been a march. He had just proposed the Civil Rights Act in 19—in June of ’63 on national television, the best civil rights speech President Kennedy ever gave, the only one in which he addressed the race issue of segregation as a moral issue, as clear as the Constitution and as old as the Scriptures. But he was afraid that a march would lead to controversy and rioting and that sort of thing, and make it hard to get the bill through Congress. So he tried to talk them out of having the march and was immensely relieved, along with a lot of the rest of America, when the march turned out to be so peaceful.

  4. Craig Taylor says:

    Please cite the multiple references.

    • Lani Gering says:

      Sir

      You are an insistent gent. That said, you remain angry that I had the courage to correctly refer to the August 28, 1963 March as the Negro March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I then had the boldness to suggest the March, despite its landmark success, was not the end goal. The end goal: passage of President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 Civil Rights bill, President Lyndon Johnson’s Act in 1964.

      This month’s column, as written, is a celebration of John F. Kennedy’s centennial history. His interests like his accomplishments were many. His civil rights contributions were limited to two paragraphs. The first of the two paragraphs notes the New York Times as my source; the second paragraph Andrew Young. In 1963 Georgia’s Andrew Young remained mostly in the North; to raise money, money needed to pay for the March and other related activities.

      I had the privilege of interviewing Ambassador Young for The Economist. The conversation was taped … a recorder placed between us … and the tape, my property, remains safely under lock and key. Young’s quote is drawn from his book An Easy Burden. Tapes, with some exceptions, are an accurate information source.

      As I previously explained, in Virginia, Dixiecrats, conservative southern Democrats like Senator Byrd, Sr. and Congressman Smith, Sr. were ardent segregationists. They “deplored the Democratic Party’s reckless disregard for constitutionality; principles in the Civil Rights Plank….” Like Kennedy, Byrd was also a Presidential candidate. Both were powerful opponents. Congressman Smith was also Chairman of the House Rules Committee.

      “Blacks throughout Virginia understood all too well what Martin Luther King, Jr. so eloquently recognized in his Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” J. Douglas Smith Armistead Boothe’s grandson wrote in Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia. “The Negro’s greatest stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens’ Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Mr. Smith’s book is an outgrowth of his doctoral thesis.

      Regarding taped history: in 2012 the JFK Presidential Library released transcripts of President Kennedy’s secret White House Recordings. The tapes, in part, chronicle President Kennedy’s attempts to persuade reluctant southern governors, states-rights governors “to accede to federal power.”

      I share, in this my last communication, some of the dated text. The JFK Library has otherwise imposed copyright restrictions.

      “As the tapes rolled into summer and the fall of 1963, it was clear the administration had crossed the Rubicon. Despite polls that indicated he was losing six or seven white votes for every new black voter he gained, Kennedy was determined to deploy the full powers of the presidency to advance the cause.”

      On September 30, 1962 President Kennedy addressed the nation on the integration of the University of Mississippi. Kennedy told Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, “Well, we’ve gotta get somebody up there now to get order and stop the firing and the shooting. Then you and I will talk by phone about James Meredith.” With forced integration came violence.

      In the spring of 1963 activists shifted their attention to the city of Birmingham. In a May 4, 1963 White House meeting with Americans for Democratic Action President Kennedy said: “…we need to push for more ‘moral suasion’ on Civil Rights. We have done not enough because the situation is so desperate. But we have showed and pushed and the Department of Justice has, there is nothing my brother has given more time to. And I quite agree. If I were a Negro I would be awfully sore….”

      On May 12, 1963 President Kennedy’s closest advisers gathered in the White House to discuss the violence in Birmingham. Attorney General Robert Kennedy said: “I guess shortly before twelve, maybe eleven-thirty, they had this explosion that took place, I guess first at Martin Luther King’s brother’s house, Reverend King, and virtually demolished his house, so that he was very fortunate to escape. About thirty minutes later, an explosion took place four miles away at a motel where Martin Luther King stays, and badly damaged it. Immediately, at both places, crowds gathered. And then the crowds got angry….So if you have an incident, and the incident, another bombing for instance, or something like that, or a fire, and it attracted large numbers of Negroes, the situation might well get out of hand.”

      Kennedy favored nonviolent civil rights measures. Given the outbreak of violence elsewhere President Kennedy feared the August 28th March would somehow spin out of control. “On what may have been the most historic day of the Civil Rights Movement the leaders were invited to the White House. They were greeted by the President. He offered a detailed political plan for pushing forward the legislation.” In attendance were: Willard Wirtz, Floyd McKissick, Matthew Ahmann, Whitney M. Young, Jr., Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, Rev. Eugene Carson Blake, A. Philip Randolph, Walter P. Reuther, Roy Wilkins, President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson.

      “You gave us your blessings,” Roy Wilkins told the President. “We think it changed the character of the protests. It was one of the prime factors in turning it into an orderly protest to help our government rather than a protest against our government. I think you’ll agree that was psychologically important.”

      Said A. Philip Randolph, “Mr. President, from the description you have made of the state of affairs of the House and Senate, it’s obvious that it’s going to take nothing less than a crusade to win approval for civil rights measures. And if it’s going to be a crusade, I think nobody can lead this crusade but you. I think people have to be appealed to over the heads of congressman and senators.”

      Said Vice President Johnson: “…this president has issued the strongest executive orders in housing, employment, armed services, that any administration has ever issued. He’s made the strongest recommendations to Congress, so far…he’s a champion in the cause for human rights…but he can’t run Congress.”

      On September 19, 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King met with President Kennedy in the White House to again discuss the Birmingham debacle. “Now, the real problem that we face is this,” said King. “The Negro community is about to reach the breaking point. There is a great deal of frustration and despair and confusion in the Negro community, and there is a feeling of being left alone and not being protected. If you walk the street, you aren’t safe…if he remains stationary, he’s in danger of some physical violence…this presents a real problem for those of us who find ourselves in leadership positions, because we are preaching at every moment the philosophy and the method of nonviolence…if something is not done to give us the Negro a new sense of hope and a sense of protection, there is a danger that we will face, and that will lead to the worst race rioting we’ve ever seen in this country.”

      There you have it including the word choice Negro. Yes, Johnson succeeded in passing an expanded Civil Rights Act. But look what it took…a political sea change…a presidential assassination, street violence, a succeeding President—a southerner—with Congressional experience, Title VII (women), and bipartisan leadership in the person of Republican Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen.

      Sarah Becker, A Bit of History

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