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Thoughts On JFK's Legacy 50 Years Later


As we near Friday's 50th anniversary of the murder of President John F. Kennedy, it is important to take a few moments to consider the legacy of the man as an American President, independent of the noise surrounding his celebrity life and mysterious and shocking death.

Whether our leaders influence popular movements or simply ride a wave of public opinion is a matter of debate and contention; we can't really know the answer to this, but perhaps it doesn't matter. What matters is that the United States in the early 1960s was a deeply divided nation, as the storm of racial and class divisions brewed beneath the surface of everything and brought a monumental challenge to the status quo.

During the last year of Kennedy's life, it was legal for employers to pay men more than women on the basis of gender as a matter of policy. There were no tools for the government to enforce laws banning discrimination based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, or ethnicity. The federal government was powerless to prevent individual states from forcing segreation on their populations. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 changed all of that; Kennedy worked for much of the third year of his presidency on the bill, rallying support in Congress and beyond for its passage.

Kennedy did not live to see his Civil Rights bill passed. Shortly after his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. met with new President Lyndon B. Johnson, and reportedly said to President Johnson, "One of the great tributes that we can pay in memory of President Kennedy is to try to enact some of the great, progressive policies that he sought to initiate." Johnson pledged to dedicate himself to the Act's passage, and, within a year, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was law in the United States.

While racism and class tensions continued to exist beyond the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and though they continue to this day, it can safely be said that the role John F. Kennedy played in moving his country toward a more enlightened attitude was invaluable. No president or prime minister can eliminate racism or sexism; but that leader can help create for his or her people a government that does not sanction discrimination. That John F. Kennedy played that role for our country is his greatest legacy.

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