On June 11, 1963, speaking live from the Oval Office on the day that the federal government forced the University of Alabama to integrate, President John F. Kennedy delivered a landmark civil rights speech that recast the struggle in moral terms. Decades later, his message resonates, but new champions are needed to fulfill the promise of his words.
In his remarks, Kennedy proposed sweeping legislation to address racial oppression that came to fruition under Lyndon Johnson. But as Kennedy anticipated in his speech, “Law alone cannot make men see right.”
Recent events reveal the obvious nature of this truth. Like so many others, I am outraged and full of heartbroken anguish regarding the devastating realities that confront our world, in which some of our brothers and sisters cannot enjoy the simple comforts of living peacefully that many of us take for granted.
One does not need to be a Democrat or a Republican to recognize the moral turpitude of our times. That we live in a society tolerant of such institutional racism and bigotry is appalling and a continuing stain on our proud national heritage.
In his speech, Kennedy aptly said: “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether ... we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark ... cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay? ... This nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free ... Now the time has come for this nation to fulfill its promise.”
This was in 1963. 1963! I feel compelled to speak out. This ongoing crisis is not acceptable. It is not tolerable. It is not something that invites gradual change. We must all stand up and prove ourselves worthy of the rich legacy of freedom that our nation aims to promote. We must embody the “fierce urgency of now” of which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently spoke. We cannot be satisfied with token statements or a mere recognition that there are problems. We cannot let life simply go on. We must demand change. We must demand it of our leaders in public life. We must talk about it with our friends and family. We must address it in the workplace, and at universities, and in our places of worship and leisure, and everywhere. We must each look inward to see how we can do better, how we can do more to change this horrible situation and actually be the “land of the free.”
This is an example of what it means to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” To borrow another Kennedy theme, the torch has been passed to a new generation, and it is time for us to step up and fulfill the obligations of our citizenship.
Scott D. Reich, of Port Washington, is an author and historian who teaches the course on Communication and the Presidency at the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Public Service. He is the author of “The Power of Citizenship: Why John F. Kennedy Matters to a New Generation.”