On the occasion of Boston College's centennial celebration on April 20, 1963, President John F. Kennedy congratulated the school for its service and noted that, "in this week of observance, you have rightly celebrated the achievements of the past — and equally rightly you have turned … to the problems of the present and future."
As we commemorate his birth a century ago Monday, his words are particularly instructive.
The 35th president strove for peace and fought for civil rights. He believed that ordinary Americans could do extraordinary things to make the country and world a better place. Perhaps most vital to how we understand his work today is that he learned as president and grew from his experiences. We should all demand this attribute from today's leaders as well. He came to understand the importance of peace and the need to fight for those who were treated as second-class citizens.
In the realm of foreign affairs, he was not always successful, but he learned from his mishaps and became more effective over time. For example, during his first year in office, he oversaw the bungled Bay of Pigs operation in Cuba and was outmatched by Nikita Khrushchev during a summit in Vienna later in the year. Following the Bay of Pigs, however, he refreshingly stood in front of the American public and took responsibility for the failure of that effort — and he learned from it. In October 1962, at a moment of immense peril during the confrontation with the Soviet Union, the former Navy lieutenant deftly constructed a peace agreement. The world stood on the precipice of a nuclear catastrophe, and he was confident enough in his judgment that he was willing and able to listen to and disagree with advice from members of the military that could have escalated the conflict. This led to Kennedy and Khrushchev recognizing the unsustainability of such dangerous confrontation and the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 between their two nations.
Kennedy articulated his thinking on foreign affairs in a speech at American University on June 10, 1963, when he spoke of a "genuine peace … that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children." He was too pragmatic to assert that it was possible for all parties to immediately immobilize their destructive weapons but, he said, because "we all cherish our children's future," the world needed to work toward peace rather than endlessly prepare for war. This war hero became a warrior for peace who saw a path to realistically partnering with the Soviet Union for the world's preservation.
Likewise, President Kennedy grew to understand the importance of civil rights, and his leadership was a key reason for the subsequent civil rights successes of the 1960s.
As he aspired to the presidency in the late 1950s, then-Senator Kennedy was not a staunch advocate for the Civil Rights Act of 1957. His desire to win the support of southern Democrats for his presidential campaign apparently outweighed his commitment to equality. Although he subsequently campaigned in 1960 to use presidential power to help African-Americans, he was reluctant, once in office, to take action. Movement on civil rights legislation took a backseat to foreign affairs and his hope for a tax cut — but his priorities clearly changed in the spring of 1963.
In May of that year, police and firefighters attacked African-American demonstrators in Birmingham, Ala., and images of the events were nationally publicized. JFK realized that southern segregationists would not reform and moved for federal legislation outlawing segregation in all places of public accommodation. He told a national audience a day after the American University speech, "One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. ... And this nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free." This speech led to his asking for Congress to move on a civil rights bill that was signed into law by his successor, Lyndon Johnson.
The youngest person elected to the presidency, who was slain just over 1,000 days into his term, did not solve all of his country's challenges. This reality cannot cloud Kennedy's significant impact on the course of the world and our aspirations for the future. He galvanized young people to enter into public life through organizations such as the Peace Corps, and embraced the arts and sciences. He understood that service and knowledge were the underpinnings of a peaceful world and a truly democratic country, and he was courageous enough to learn and evolve.
At the conclusion of the centennial address at Boston College, he told his audience that "confident and unafraid, we labor on." His message should inspire us again today to "labor on" and recommit to his example of charting a clear-eyed path toward justice and peace at home and in the world.
Mike Beland, an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, lives in Bethesda. Twitter: @beland_mike.