As difficult as it may be to comprehend, since his image is forever frozen in time as a youthful president, John F. Kennedy was born 100 years ago — a centenary marked with retrospectives and ceremonies over the Memorial Day weekend. Given all that has happened since that presidency, I confess to longing for what might have been.
Kennedy was the first president of my childhood memories. Of course, as time has gone by, I have learned that the mythology of his Camelot presidency belongs in a book of memories that include Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy. But his call to action — "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country" — unleashed the better nature of so many people. Until an assassin's bullet struck him down, he represented an aspirational America that recognized its problems, from racism to poverty to the Cold War, and vowed to overcome them. Even the skies could not limit us. Or so we thought for a brief, shining moment.
Dreams die hard, even when they are deferred for generations. I for one still dream of a beloved community imagined by Martin Luther King Jr. and am heartened that there are so many fellow travelers. But it is maddening that this country of ours, a so-called beacon to the rest of the world, is so mired in hatred of otherness.
Two particularly galling examples come to mind: the death of Richard Collins in College Park on May 20 and the death of two men in a Portland, Ore., attack last Friday. Those accused of the killings are white men with a reported history of rank animus toward blacks and toward Muslims. All three could have been — but were not — recognized by President Trump as he marked Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery and urged us to honor those who "ran into hell to face evil" and spent "their last moments on this earth in defense of this great country and its people," though he tweeted about the Portland victims. The muted response is as unsurprising as is the ratcheting up of blatant acts of hate.
Collins, just days after being commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army and just days before he would have graduated with honors from Bowie State University, was stabbed to death, allegedly by a University of Maryland student who reportedly relishes white supremacy. If Collins, who was black, represents the best and the brightest of his generation, his accused killer represents the incurable cancer that ravages us from sea to shining sea.
Out in Portland on Friday, another man stuck in a white nationalist fantasy world fatally stabbed two good Samaritans and seriously injured a third after they came to the aid of two teenage girls traveling on a commuter train, police say. The 16-year-old, who was traveling with a 17-year-old Muslim friend who wore a hijab, later told reporters: "He told us to go back to Saudi Arabia, and he told us we shouldn't be here, to get out of his country. He was just telling us that we basically weren't anything and that we should kill ourselves."
The men who stood up for the girls included Ricky John Best, a 53-year-old Portland city employee who spent 23 years in the U.S. Army, and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, a 23-year-old recent college graduate. As Portland's mayor, Ted Wheeler, said, "Their actions were brave and selfless and should serve as an example and inspiration to us all. They are heroes."
President Kennedy was slow to embrace the civil rights struggle, but he famously did, and in a televised speech on June 11, 1963, he affirmed the rights of "every American to enjoy the privileges of being American without regard to his race or his color." Hours later white racists gunned down Medgar Evers in Jackson, Miss., where the World War II veteran was a leader of the NAACP. After that low moment as well as the Kennedy assassination, the 1964 Civil Rights Act became law, extending protections to those discriminated against on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
In the spirit of President Kennedy, 2nd Lt. Richard Collins and the Portland heroes, we should each ask what we can do to combat the hate that threatens to consume us. And then we should do something — even if that means putting ourselves on the line "in defense of this great country and its people."
E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.