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Kennedy inspired Americans to embark on service around the world and journeys into space

President John F. Kennedy
White House photo

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 22, 2013 - Among the tributes to former President John F. Kennedy on this 50th anniversary year of his assassination is a website that helps visitors connect the dots to show ways in which the flame of optimism lit by the young president still burns in our time. He was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, at age 46. Visitors are able to express their thoughts on the Kennedy legacy by sending tweets and uploading text, photos and videos to the website, called “An Idea Lives On.”

A product of the Kennedy Library Foundation, the website takes its name from a speech in which the late president said, "A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on." The foundation’s executive director, Tom McNaught, told the Associated Press, “You can't stop trying to instill in young people the ideas he instilled in my generation."

What became known as the Kennedy legacy involved accomplishments in four general areas.

The first was public service, the notion that Americans should roll up their sleeves and help the needy around the corner and around the world. That was the idea behind the Peace Corps through which Kennedy inspired young college graduates to put aside personal financial rewards for a few years and devote themselves to uplifting people in developing nations.

Among those who answered the call was Janet Riehl, a St. Louis area resident who joined in 1972 and was assigned to Africa. By the time she came aboard, Riehl says the organization’s focus had shifted to what amounted to monitored teaching and jobs in government ministries. This differed, she says, from the “cultural immersion” of the Kennedy Peace Corps, the idea of “putting volunteers in villages and letting a project emerge organically.” In any case, the program has been a success. Beginning just 38 days after Kennedy took office, the Peace Corps has signed up more than 210,000 people who have served in 139 countries, according to Boston’s NPR station WBUR.

A second part of the Kennedy legacy involved the space race and international tension. He captured the public’s imagination with the thought of an American reaching the before the end of the decade. That speech had a lasting impact, linking Kennedy from that day to July 20, 1969, when Americans Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin reached the moon aboard Apollo 11; people around the world would watch in awe as Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the lunar soil.

The moon voyage speech came in the face of growing and grave east-west tension, a period when the U.S. appeared to be losing ground to the Soviet Union both in the space race and in international influence. A month before the speech came the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs Invasion; months after the speech the Berlin Wall was erected. That was followed a year later by the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the growing presence of American troops in Laos and South Vietnam. This succession of events continues to be discussed in the context of Kennedy, how he handled them and how his decisions have shaped how we view them and the world decades later.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev meets with U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1961.
Credit Wikipedia
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev meets with U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

One lasting impact of Kennedy on the east-west front involved his successful push for a limited nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union. In time, the Berlin Wall tumbled during the Reagan administration; relations between Cuba and the United States continue to be a work in progress; the psychic, physical and political wounds from the Vietnam War have slowly healed; and space voyages became routine to the point that America began to set its sights on Mars.

The third part of Kennedy’s legacy involved domestic policies ranging from civil rights to health. Being the brother of a mentally handicapped sister, Rosemary, may have figured in Kennedy’s attention to mental health issues. He signed legislation that led to a movement to end the warehousing of these patients and caring for them instead in community settings. That vision, as with many others, has fallen short, never reaching the goal of building even half the number of facilities called for in the legislation. But the movement did have the effect of changing the way society viewed the mentally ill.

Equal rights during the Kennedy years got a push through his Commission on the Status of Women. At the time, women earned 59 percent of their male counterparts. Kennedy sought to end the disparity by signing the Equal Pay Act on June 10, 1963, which allowed tens of thousands of women to receive back pay during the next decade.

Kennedy faced several pushes to take action on civil rights issues as a result of activities such as the March on Washington, the Freedom Riders, and challenges posed by people like Gov. George Wallace who stood in a door to try to prevent the integration of the University of Alabama. Other pressure points affecting Kennedy’s responses included the assassination of Mississippi civil rights activist Medgar Evers in June 1963, and the bombing three months later of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, claiming the lives of four girls.

In addition to speaking out against bigotry, Kennedy’s responses included laws against housing discrimination, an end to Jim Crow in interstate commerce, a ban on discrimination in the sale or lease of housing financed by federally guaranteed loans, broader job opportunities from federal government contractors, and employment for blacks as well in government installations such as the Post Office, the Navy and the Veterans Administration.

In spite of the turmoil of the period, the Kennedy years are remembered by many as a period that spoke to America’s potential, says Peace Corps volunteer Riehl. “For my generation of Boomers,” she said, “there was a beauty, a promise.” That hope was tempered later, she said, by reports of Kennedy’s infidelity. “I can't personally admire him anymore, but good things came out of his short presidency that laid the groundwork” for more progress by his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson.

A different view comes from Affton resident Gary Wilson, who was attending West Point when Kennedy was assassinated. He summed up Kennedy’s impact in three sentences: “He was, at least at the time, the youngest person to be elected president. He was the first Catholic to be elected president. He was assassinated.” Wilson says these are the three things for which most people will remember Kennedy.

But that assessment seems like an understatement of the Kennedy years. Wikipedia quotes historian Theodore White as saying that more legislation came out of the Kennedy administration than at any other time since the 1930s. According to White, Congress enacted 33 of 53 bills pushed by Kennedy in 1961, 40 of 54 in 1962, and 35 of 58 in 1963. Beyond civil rights, the Peace Corps and defense, the legislation included progressive laws covering labor, taxation, education, welfare, unemployment, the environment and agriculture.

Kennedy led the nation during a period of turmoil in the streets and activism in the White House, a period when a president dared Americans to dreamed big and inspired them to commit to a legacy of service to their country and people the world over. His imprint on history has been as permanent as Armstrong’s on the moon.

About the series

Clockwise from top: Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at the March on Washington; The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the same day, Aug. 28, 1963, delivers the "I Have a Dream Speech"; President John F. Kennedy addresses the nation on civil rights, Jun
Credit Wikipedia images
Clockwise from top: Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at the March on Washington; The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the same day, Aug. 28, 1963, delivers the "I Have a Dream Speech"; President John F. Kennedy addresses the nation on civil rights, June 11, 1963; Alabama Gov. George Wallace, on the same day as the president's address, blocks the doorway at the University of Alabama.

During the next several months, we’ll look back and point to events today that have only a few degrees of separation from the big moments of 1963. It’s one way to help us connect the dots and understand how we got where we are.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.