Today marks the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. His brilliantly crafted inaugural address is still as stirring now as it was the day he gave it, especially since so many of the circumstances of his time parallel ours.
In 1961, U.S. forces entered Vietnam. In 2011, U.S. troops continue to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 1961, schools were just desegregating. In 2011, Raleigh schools are becoming segregated once again. In 1961, the first Catholic and youngest President in U.S. history took office. In 2011, we are governed by our country’s first black commander-in-chief.
Barack Obama is reminiscent of JFK, thanks to his eloquence, optimism and call to service. Obama asked all of us this week to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy by volunteering, echoing Kennedy’s famous charge, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
Like Obama, Kennedy spoke to the youth of America in his inaugural address, saying:
Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
Similarly, Obama told the crowd gathered in Washington two years ago:
On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation. But in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.
Kennedy’s inaugural speech was directed to a world in the midst of the Cold War, but it’s interesting to see how the sentiments he was lobbing at “the other side” can be applied to the lack of decorum we’ve seen in this country as of late. Kennedy urged people to remember the importance of civility and the need to work together, saying, “So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof…. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us. Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms.” Of course Kennedy was referring to nuclear weapons in that last sentence, but today, in light of the shootings in Tucson and the numerous school shootings around the country, we must revisit the idea of stricter gun control laws, as well.
Take an opportunity today when you have it to watch Kennedy’s inaugural address with your children, and to talk to them about ways they can serve their nation. I, for one, will reminisce with my daughter about how she and I canvassed for Obama the week before his election and tell her the story of how, because she was so tired from going door-to-door, she fell asleep while listening to former President Clinton speak.
How will you celebrate Kennedy’s legacy with your children?