Remembering JFK and Lincoln
By: TD James, Guest Contributor*
“My wife and I are very proud to come to this meeting. This organization has done a good deal for this state and for our country and I’m particularly glad that it emphasizes an opportunity for all Americans a chance to develop their talents, education for boys and girls, so that they can pursue those talents to the very end of their ability” -President Kennedy Nov. 21, 1963
This quote was President Kennedy’s introduction of a speech he made to the League of United Latin American Citizens in Houston Texas at the Rice Hotel in November 1963. The next day the president would be dead. President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas Texas at 12:30 pm while riding in his presidential limousine. This week marks fifty years since JFK was murdered in Dealey Plaza. Fifty years later all of the details of his assassination are not fully clear. This week has been a testament to that. TV shows elaborating on complex conspiracies have been wholly unavoidable as we mark this tragic anniversary. The assassination, the cover ups, and the conspiracy dominate media. This is not a shock, considering the man who was killed; JFK was our first TV president. Television had come into its own as real competitor with radio during Kennedy’s time in office and the ever present news coverage of the assassination and the events that followed solidified TV’s advantages over radio. America saw its first murder broadcast live on TV as Jack Ruby killed Lee Harvey Oswald. As we remember Kennedy this week let us not remember him for the event that ended his life, but remember him for what he did in his life.
JFK was born may 29, 1919 in Massachusetts. He attended Harvard and served in US Navy after graduating. In WWII Kennedy became a hero when the torpedo boat he commanded was sunk and he successfully rescued injured members of his crew. After the war he was elected to the 11th congressional district in Massachusetts and served there until 1952 when he was elected to the US Senate. In 1960 he was elected President of the United States. As President Kennedy created the Peace Corp, tightened the US’s military alliance with Israel, created the Navy Seals, signed the first Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union and avoided a nuclear showdown during the Cuban Missile Crisis. JFK is remembered as a great president, but his presidency, like all presidencies, had its trying times and tough moments. Kennedy is remembered for a botched coup attempt in Cuba and other controversial policies in the Caribbean and Latin America. Along with these events Kennedy is also remembered for his impassioned speeches. He implored us to, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” He also challenged us to support the space program saying at Rice University in 1962,
“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon… (interrupted by applause) we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win”
One hundred and fifty years ago this week a speech was given that, like Kennedy’s speeches, would be glorified in American history. On November 19, 1863 Abraham Lincoln gave his most famous speech at a ceremony dedicating the Soldiers National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The Gettysburg Address was 270 words that memorialized those that had fallen on the battlefield and contextualize the civil war with our founding principles. The Battle of Gettysburg was fought between July 1 and 3rd of 1863. The battle resulted in over 40,000 casualties on both sides with over 7,000 soldiers dying. Earlier in 1863 Lincoln had signed the Emancipation proclamation freeing all slaves in the states of the Confederacy. Full emancipation throughout the United States would come two years later with the ratification of the 13th amendment, outlawing slavery everywhere in the United States.
Ninety-nine years after the battle of Gettysburg, during Kennedy’s second year in office some say that the last battle of the Civil War was fought. In 1861, nearly the entire student body of Ole Miss enlisted in the Confederate army. Four students were all that reported for classes and the university was closed. Every single student that enlisted was killed or wounded during Pickett’s Charge during the Battle of Gettysburg. The deep wounds left after this were reopened in the fall of 1962 on the Campus of Ole Miss. James Meredith had taken his case all the way to the US Supreme Court which declared he had the right to enroll in the University. Over the course of the fall JFK tried to reason with Gov. Ross Barnett after he consistently denied Meredith access to the university. Kennedy sent federalized National Guard troops and US Marshalls to the school to force compliance. On September 30th1962 a riot ensued on the campus. Students were throwing Molotov cocktails and Marshalls throwing teargas. When the smoke cleared two people were dead from gunshot wounds and scores injured. On October 1, 1962 James Meredith enrolled at the University of Mississippi. Kennedy had won the last battle in the war of Lincoln’s time, still fighting for equality for people freed from slavery one hundred years before.
On April 15th 1865, after the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, President Lincoln, like Kennedy was assassinated. This week is not only a time for remembering two presidents whose lives were tragically cut short, it is a time for remembering what each stood for and examining where we are today. One hundred years after the freeing of slaves Kennedy still had to fight battles with those that held the ideals of the old south. Fifty years after Kennedy’s death, where do we stand? Have we moved forward, are we any nearer to achieving equality?
The answers to these questions are complicated and are not absolute. In 2008, my first year at the University of Southern Mississippi, a group of sorority girls received national attention for dressing in blackface for Halloween. Southern Miss, like Ole Miss has its own checkered past when it comes to racism. USM was the last of the Mississippi schools to integrate. The first student who tried to enroll was Clyde Kennard. In September of 1960 Kennard was framed for stealing chicken feed, to prevent him from enrolling, and was sentenced to seven years in prison. Four days after the controversy caused by the girls, on November 4th 2008, hundreds of students filled the grassy area between the dorms to celebrate Barack Obama’s election as President. During the celebration trucks with students in the beds shouted obscenities and slurs, but their hatred was not powerful enough to stop the celebration. The year I left school students again made national news chanting, “where’s your green card?” at an opposing teams basketball player who had a Hispanic name. In 2012, Ole Miss students were reported to have burned Barack Obama signs and chanted, “the South will rise again.” Just this week we have seen Conservative clubs at the University of Texas propose playing a capture the illegal immigrant game. They faced enormous backlash and were threatened with consequences from university officials and were forced to cancel. Today we here the same arguments used by those opposing Lincoln and Kennedy recycled when they argue against things like immigration reform and equal rights for allAmericans.
This week as we mark 100 years since the Gettysburg address and 50 years since the assassination of JFK let us remember these events, and also remember what these men stood for.
“One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free… We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and a people. It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is a time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives. It is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say this is a problem of one section of the country or another, or deplore the facts that we face. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all. Those who do nothing are inviting shame, as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right, as well as reality.”
-President John F Kennedy, June 1963
We have moved forward, as a society, since the deaths of Lincoln and Kennedy, but the moment we stop moving forward is the moment we have lost sight of what these men stood for.