In the months following November 22, 1963, people around the world told my father, Bobby Kennedy, that with President Kennedy’s death, so died their hope. He was touched by their words and by their continued reverence for his brother, but he did not share their sentiment. To me, my siblings and cousins, he taught us that the way to honor Jack’s death was to learn the lessons that he tried to teach us in life, and apply those values to the challenges we face as a nation and a people.
In his short Presidency, he governed according to the challenge he set forth in his inaugural speech: “Let the word go forth from this time and place that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans…unwilling to witness or permit the 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.”
In his thousand days in office, President Kennedy laid the pathway for the passage of the crown jewels of the civil rights movement: the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. He created the Peace Corps, which sent 210,000 Americans to serve the needy in 139 nations around the world. He signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. He brought the world back from the brink of destruction by resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis. He challenged us to put a man on the moon. And he made us believe that we could do all this and more.
But President Kennedy, like Robert Kennedy, was loved around the world, not because his policies were radically different (though they were), not because he had a novel way to address the world’s problems (though he did). He captured the world’s imagination because he appealed to our better angels: our belief in hope, in possibility, in the capacity of the individual to make a difference and overcome even the most enduring and difficult problems that we face as a world.
He made our domestic and foreign policy reflective of our greatest values as a country. He didn’t appeal to our dark sides, our racist sides, our fearful or angry side, he appealed to the best in us, and he made us believe that we could be that version of ourselves.
I’ve been asked again and again how I will be marking this anniversary. When it comes to my Uncle Jack, my father, or any other loved ones we’ve lost, I believe in honoring lives, not deaths. So I celebrate their birthdays every year instead, and on all the days in between, I try to live my life in a way that honors that best part of us that they asked us to embrace. To me, honoring Jack in the simplest way means not asking what our country can do for us, but what we can do for our country, families, classrooms, colleagues, communities, and our shared world. There is wisdom in asking this question, and there is joy in service.
And for those who will be marking the 50th anniversary this November 22, I will offer this quote on grief from Aeschylus, one of the authors in whom my father found solace during the months he spent mourning after Uncle Jack died: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
But I also want to offer to all who loved and miss President Kennedy, I would ask you to mark another day on the calendar as well: May 29, his birthday.
* Kerry Kennedy is President of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.
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