The 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s November 22, 1963 assassination reminds us of how thoroughly myth has overtaken the facts in his legacy. The facts are clear: Kennedy did little to help the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, expanded U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and jeopardized national security by having an affair with the girlfriend of Mafia crime boss Sam Giancana. He differed from his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower more by his personal style than in political substance. While some were no doubt influenced by the young president, the notion that Kennedy inspired a new generation of civil rights activists and others to pursue social justice ignores that, while activists were organizing the social movements of the Kennedy era, the President was an opponent or bystander. Kennedy’s values were so counter to the changing of the times that in 1959 he joined right-wing Senator Barry Goldwater in condemning rock and roll music and supporting a bill limiting radio stations’ ability to play it.
Why does Kennedy’s mythic legacy matter today? Because millions of Americans still believe that great presidents, rather than grassroots activists, inspire and implement progressive change. And as we saw after Barack Obama took office, this has led to people sitting back and waiting for a President to “make change” rather than getting personally involved.
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
This memorable quote from John Ford’s classic 1962 film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
, explains why the legend of John F. Kennedy has supplanted the actual facts of his presidency. Even leftist filmmakers like Oliver Stone bought this myth in his 1991 film JFK
, in which Lyndon Johnson---who actually did boost civil rights and enacted a progressive domestic agenda that never happened under Kennedy---is the villain. Amazingly given his usual leftist foreign policy views, Stone even portrays Kennedy as an enemy of the military industrial complex and the national security state.
If Stone wants to believe that the first three years of the Kennedy presidency were not indicative of the future, that’s his business. But the false narrative of an idealistic President Kennedy battling for social justice is everyone’s concern. Kennedy’s unearned exalted status has left many viewing political elites as the driving force for change rather the grassroots activists who actually build social movements and create progressive change.
The real JFK wanted nothing to do with activists, including Martin Luther King, Jr.. He saw the Peace Corps as a way of offsetting challenges to U.S. imperialism, not as a vehicle to rally people for social justice (and while Kennedy did start the program as President, Senator Hubert Humphrey introduced legislation for a Peace Corp over three years before Kennedy’s 1961 Executive Order).
The media was enthralled by the access to the social elite granted to them through President Kennedy, and it created a myth of the Kennedy years as “Camelot.” But the Kennedy years were far from Camelot for many Americans. Identifying Kennedy's presidency as the catalyst of the nation's hopes for a brighter future ignores the ongoing African-American civil rights movement, cultural changes reflected in the rise of rock and roll and the Beats, and a growing “Boomer” generation that was not content to be organization men (the women’s movement remained years away).
Many were inspired by Kennedy to work for positive change, but this was an era when The Times Were a Changin’. It was Lyndon Johnson who increased civic engagement through the War on Poverty, and Kennedy was so “morbidly afraid
” of the 1963 March on Washington that while his administration helped to increase turnout, there was no legislative follow up in the three months prior to Kennedy’s murder.
The Kennedy Family Legacy
While JFK is lionized to this day, it was his brothers who aligned with grassroots activists and who cultivated alliances with movements for change.
Unlike JFK’s killing, the murder of Robert Kennedy can be said to have changed the course of history. Robert was as hostile to progressive interests as his brother prior to JFK’s death, but by 1968 he was a changed man. Robert Kennedy recognized that change is driven by farmworkers, African-Americans and working people, and avoided the elite trappings that his older brother embraced.
Many believe Kennedy would have won the Democratic nomination in 1968 and then prevented the nation from a Richard Nixon presidency. If Oliver Stone wanted to revisit how an assassin’s bullet changed U.S. history, this is the Kennedy he should have focused on.
Edward “Ted” Kennedy was the greatest progressive legislator of his time. He compiled a record of progressive legislative achievements that may never be matched. Ted Kennedy followed in the footsteps of Robert, not John, yet was always seen by some as falling short by not restoring Camelot.
John Kennedy’s role in building his brothers’ political careers was his greatest contribution to social change. Robert and Ted’s political development after JFK’s death offers a great model for politician-activist relationships, and the credit is all theirs.
Randy Shaw’s new book is, The Activist’s Handbook, Second Edition: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century