This past Friday marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. Any of us who were old enough to remember that tragic day were taken back in our memories to where we were when we heard the news that the President had been shot. I was in second grade and can still recall our teacher sharing that news with us in a way that was appropriate for seven year old children. For much of my life, the tragic death of President Kennedy was most of what I knew about his brief time in office. Only in recent years have I become aware of his own journey of growth and leadership in one of the most important aspects of the life of our nation – civil rights. For most of his first two years in office, President Kennedy hesitated to become involved with promoting the civil rights movement. As a Democrat, he counted on the support of Southern Democrats many of whom were staunch segregationists. Yet by the spring of 1963, President Kennedy grew to the point that he came out publicly in support of national civil rights legislation. This growth was nurtured by the witness of thousands of African Americans who willingly subjected themselves to physical, verbal, and emotional suffering through participation in faith based non-violent direct actions. In particular, the Birmingham campaign in April and May of 1963 captured the nation’s attention as people as young as seven years old were arrested and/or subjected to the violence of high pressure fire hoses and attacking police dogs. This led to one of the most important speeches of President Kennedy’s life. On June 11, he addressed the nation on television about the justice of civil rights. He pointed out various aspects of the inequality and injustice of segregation. Here is some of what he said to the nation:
The Negro baby born in America today, regardless of the section of the State in which he is born, has about one-half as much chance of completing a high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day, one-third as much chance of completing college, one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man, twice as much chance of becoming unemployed, about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year, a life expectancy which is 7 years shorter, and the prospects of earning only half as much.
This is not a sectional issue. Difficulties over segregation and discrimination exist in every city, in every State of the Union, producing in many cities a rising tide of discontent that threatens the public safety. Nor is this a partisan issue. In a time of domestic crisis men of good will and generosity should be able to unite regardless of party or politics. This is not even a legal or legislative issue alone. It is better to settle these matters in the courts than on the streets, and new laws are needed at every level, but law alone cannot make men see right. We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.
Two aspects of this part of his speech are especially important for me as a follower of Jesus. In the last line, President Kennedy declared the cause of civil rights to be a moral issue connected to the Scriptures. Those same Scriptures had been used for centuries by some to support first slavery and then legal segregation. I believe that the President called us back to the original intention of the Scriptures as the revelation of God’s love for all people and God’s clear desire for justice for all. Secondly, the President lifted up the impact that segregation had on people’s lives in terms of economics, education, and even life expectancy. Although legal segregation in our country is long gone, disparities in economics, education, and physical health based on race still exist throughout our nation. In our area of metropolitan Washington, DC, African American households on average have only one tenth the wealth of white households. Public education in our city and most cities has largely re-segregated based on the racial implications of economics. There continues to be a disparity in health care and life expectancy according to race. All this adds up to say that the struggle for true equality goes on. This struggle is an essential part of the ministry of the Church because the words of President Kennedy still ring true, “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures…” As we remember the tragic death of a President fifty years ago, may we also remember his journey of growth in the commitment to justice and commit ourselves and our churches to this ongoing journey of faith, love, and justice.
Dr. Jim Melson, Director of Spiritual Formation