On May 29, the United States and the world will celebrate the 100th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s birth.
Tragically, President Kennedy, or JFK as he was known universally, did not live to see the ripe old age of 100 or even get close to it. He was assassinated on November 22, 1963 – when he was only 46 years old – as he sat with his wife Jackie in an open top convertible in a Dallas motorcade.
Kennedy’s premature and horrific demise caused professor of history Robert Dallek to title his brilliant biography on JFK, An Unfinished Life. While Kennedy’s life was unfinished, his legacy lives on through the works and lives of others.
The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum (Library) is devoting one year to a centennial celebration of President Kennedy. On its website, the Library states, “John F. Kennedy’s legacy is a vision of political action and public service based on courage, service, inclusion and innovation.”
The site highlights Kennedy’s legacy in five areas: public service, civil rights, peace & diplomacy, arts & culture, and science & innovation. That legacy includes:
- Public Service. In 1961, Kennedy established the Peace Corps to encourage mutual understanding between America and people of other nations and cultures. The Peace Corps thrives today. Since its inception, some 200,000 Peace Corps volunteers have served in over 139 countries.
- Civil Rights. Kennedy advocated for full legal equality for African Americans. A comprehensive civil rights bill was drafted in the Fall of 1963. It was passed after Kennedy’s death as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The civil rights movement moved forward from there breaking barriers and tearing down walls.
- Peace & Diplomacy: In October 1963, Kennedy signed a Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty among the US, Russia, and Great Britain. Thirty-three years later, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty signed by 71 nations. President Clinton signed the Treaty but the Senate rejected it by a vote of 51 to 48.
- Arts & Culture. JFK’s effect as a leader for arts and culture in the United States is unparalleled. During his presidency, he took the lead in raising funds for a National Cultural Museum. After his assassination, Congress designated the National Cultural Museum as a “living memorial” to Kennedy. In 2017, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is one of the foremost venues of its type in the world.
- Science and Innovation. As part of the space race against Russia, in 1961 called upon the nation to commit to the ambitious goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Within a year, Alan Shepherd and Gus Grissom became the first Americans to travel in space. In February of 1962, astronaut and future Senator John Glenn orbited the earth. On July 20, 1969 the Apollo 11 crew set foot on the moon and came back safely. America’s record in exploring the galaxy has grown exponentially since then.
In addition to remembering Kennedy’s accomplishments and legacy in these areas and others, we both have our own more personal memories of JFK. Frank Islam’s are recent. Ed Crego’s date back much earlier.
Frank has been a board member of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts since 2013. He remembers walking into the Center for his first board meeting: and reading the following words of President Kennedy etched there:
I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.
Frank vowed then to help continue to move America forward through the arts. He renewed that commitment in 2017 when the role of the Kennedy Center as a protector and promoter of the arts and artists became even more important with the potential elimination of funding for those organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities from the federal budget.
As millions of youth in the ‘60’s, Ed Crego was inspired by JFK and his call to “… ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Ed’s memories include:
- Writing an article for the Streator Daily Times Press in 1961 about America prevailing in the space race against Russia because it now had a Good Shepherd in heaven after Alan Shepherd became our first space traveler.
- Going to Washington, DC in 1962 as a member of a 10 person high school senior honor group from Streator, Illinois. As part of that visit, the group was scheduled to meet with Attorney General Robert Kennedy. They arrived at his office to find that the Attorney General had been called to the White House for an emergency meeting with his brother the President. Robert asked the group to wait for him to come back from that meeting. They did and when Robert Kennedy returned he spent over one and one-half hours with the group. During that session, he asked what their future plans were and requested that each of them do some thing to make America a better country as they moved forward in their careers.
- Ed Crego delivered on that request by going to work at the National Institute for Education in Law and Poverty which was part of the Office of Economic Opportunity in 1968 after serving two yeas in the Army and a tour of duty in Vietnam.
Those are some of our memories of Kennedy and the Kennedy legacy. We also remember the words from Camelot, the Broadway musical of Kennedy’s era:
Don’t let it be forgot. That once there was a spot. For one brief shining moment that was known. As Camelot.
By remembering John F. Kennedy and his legacy of a “vision of political action and public service based on courage, service, inclusion and innovation” in this year of the 100th anniversary of his birth – perhaps it will be possible to bring that once upon a time spot and shining moment back again.