Finishing Unfinished Work

“It should be clear by now that a nation can be no stronger abroad than she is at home. Only an America which practices what it preaches about equal rights and social justice will be respected by those whose choice affects our future. Only an America which has fully educated its citizens is fully capable of tackling the complex problems and perceiving the hidden dangers of the world in which we live.”

This passage is from President John F. Kennedy’s “Unspoken Speech,” the speech he was on his way to deliver at the Dallas Citizens Council’s annual meeting when he was assassinated on November 22, 1963.

I was a brand-new law school graduate in my first months of work with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund on that fateful November day 60 years ago. I had begun the day in a rural Georgia prison visiting a young Black male death row client accused of killing a white farmer, and then returned to Atlanta, where I was sitting in a courthouse library researching how many Blacks and whites had been executed in Georgia’s history when a white man burst in grinning and shouting loudly, “Hot damn, they got him!” It took me a moment to realize he was talking about President Kennedy. I rushed with others to the nearest television set to see the news and could barely get away quickly enough from the hateful glee of some of the white citizens surrounding me. The memory of their celebration still makes me sick.

I met President Kennedy only once, in the summer of 1961 after my first year of law school, when I and many other young leaders participating in Crossroads Africa, a precursor to the Peace Corps, gathered on the White House lawn to hear him and Crossroads Africa’s visionary leader Reverend James Robinson give us a sendoff to a summer of service in Africa. So much of the deep lingering sadness over President Kennedy’s assassination is about the unfinished promise—unspoken speeches, unfulfilled hopes, the wondering about what might have been. So many Americans felt inspired to do more and be better by the youthful optimism and challenges of the young President’s words, only to find him so incomprehensibly and suddenly silenced by violence and hate.

Although the kind of venom I witnessed in Atlanta surrounding his death was stunning, many Black Americans felt his loss especially deeply because it was hostility we recognized and had often felt in our daily lives in the segregated South. When President Kennedy was elected, many of us were especially hopeful that he would move the country in a new direction on civil rights. In an era dominated by the Cold War, movement inflection points like the Freedom Rides and the Birmingham nonviolent direct action campaign challenging racial apartheid in one of America’s toughest Southern cities initially seemed as if they might be considered a worrisome distraction to the new administration. But President Kennedy grew as he saw the massive violent resistance to change from some Southern whites unfolding before him that would not go away and realized that the pent-up Black demand for freedom also would not go away. He responded to the movement’s persistent and sacrificial actions with passion and major action of his own.

On June 11, 1963, President Kennedy made a nationally televised address introducing a landmark civil rights bill that he sent to Congress one week later. The eloquent speech once again inspired many Americans to share his vision that America could and must be better. His tragic death created a political climate that, combined with President Lyndon Johnson’s skillful political leadership, resulted in enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

We have since seen that President Kennedy would not be the last leader or citizen who stood up for equal justice to be slain. His death and others that followed remind us that our dreams and commitment to justice cannot depend on a single leader or be destroyed if one, a few, or many are lost to acts of hate and violence. We must always ensure there is a critical mass of leaders and activists committed to nonviolence and racial and economic justice who will keep seeding and building transforming movements. When one leader passes many more must be ready to step up to the plate and keep working to ensure a more just America and world.

Sixty years later, the fight against intolerance, violence, and hatred in America is not over. But the message President Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others have given their lives to ensure is that America can and must live up to its promise. So I hope, as we remember a young President who told us to ask not what our country can do for us but what we can do for our country, that we will renew our commitment to working with children and young people today to build a just America where all of them are valued and enabled to achieve their God given potential regardless of the lottery of birth. And we must determine not to let our children and grandchildren have to fight again the same battles for the soul and future of America that earlier generations did. Our true remembrance to President Kennedy is in our actions to honor the unspoken words and finish the unfinished work.