John F. Kennedy was an inspiration to a generation [Commentary]

His death drained us of innocence

November 22, 2013|By Raymond Daniel Burke

The walk home from school is what I remember most. It should have been a lighthearted schoolboy stroll for a sixth grader on a cloudy and mild Friday in late November, filled with visions of the weekend ahead and the long Thanksgiving holiday just a few days away. Instead, it was a mournful plodding along a route I had walked daily, yet, on that afternoon, my surroundings seemed somehow alien. The remnants of crisp fallen leaves crackling under foot served as constant reminders that, with each step, my childhood was palpably draining out of me and being left behind to evaporate into memory. I felt it tug at me as I trudged forward, but I dared not turn around to take one final look, for fear of the heartbreak the sight would surely induce. Better to keep my eyes ahead and march on stoically into the inevitable that would be all too vividly displayed on my home's television screen.

It is not my intent to make more of John F. Kennedy than he was, or imbue him with some idealized cloak of perfection. But if you were of a certain impressionable age, and disposed to dream of the grand things you and your compatriots might accomplish, President Kennedy was a charming catalyst for youthful imagination. The sickly Boston boy had who spent so many weeks in bed devouring history books grew up to demonstrate that knowledge was cool, words could be used powerfully, and intellect offered the path to changing the world. The child of privilege, who became a genuine war hero in the same theater where my own father had served, showed us that service to others and to county is honorable and gives meaning to who we are as a people.

Commentators often make reference to the inspiration found in the challenges that he spoke of in his eloquent inaugural address, but for me, the clincher came a few months later when he asked us to commit ourselves to sending astronauts to the moon before the decade was out. It was a proposal that was stunningly outlandish, totally unfathomable, and absolutely wonderful. We had found someone who was leading, not just forward, but into a future of possibilities that were limited only by the breath of our imagination, intelligence and determination.

On consecutive days in June 1963, President Kennedy gave two speeches that defined for many of us the role of our generation in the future to come. Delivering the commencement address at American University, the President made the case for eradicating the threat of nuclear war from the world and maintaining peace, which, he noted, is, "in the last analysis, basically a matter of human rights: the right to live out our lives without fear of devastation; the right to breathe air as nature provided it; the right of future generations to a healthy existence." In doing so, he reminded us that "we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal."

The following night, speaking from the White House, the President announced that he would submit a civil rights act to Congress. Addressing what he deemed "a moral issue" and one "as old as the scriptures," he implored us all to examine our conscience about the events that had been occurring throughout the south, and then asked the simple question of "who among us would be content to have the color of their skin changed and stand in" the place of a black American. With that, he had made it self-evident that segregation was as immoral as it was unconstitutional.

The power of those two speeches enlisted us as dedicated foot soldiers in the causes of peace, and the final removal of the stain of racial injustice from our nation's character. It was heady stuff that had the capacity to fill a young life with profound meaning and purpose. All things seemed possible if we only followed his call. We were literally going to the moon and beyond.

As I walked home that day in brooding and stunned silence, trying to comprehend the unimaginable, hope and possibility had been replaced in my mind with rage and despair. The late afternoon shadows hammered at my heart and fell across the familiar streets like a foreboding shroud. I passed through my neighborhood as if seeing it for the last time. All of those innocent rights of passage I had experienced there, that had so comfortably formed the fabric of everyday life, seemed just faded memories that terrible afternoon. Everything was different. Everything had changed. The simplicity and security of all that I had come to know and trust had been obliterated in an instant in Dallas.

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