Considering History: John F. Kennedy and the Ideals and Realities of Civic Engagement

American elections have consistently revealed the dark side of democracy.

John F. Kennedy and his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald

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This series by American studies professor Ben Railton explores the connections between America’s past and present.

Whether Election Day eventually becomes a national holiday or not, it certainly represents in many ways an idealized space for democratic participation and civic engagement. From elementary school mock elections to how many of us proudly sport our “I Voted” stickers, the opportunity to participate in electoral democracy often feels like a collective celebration of our shared community. As we move toward the centennial of the 19th Amendment’s extension of the right to vote to American women, we’re reminded of all the groups that have fought for the chance to add their voices to these shared electoral experiences.

The fact that those groups have had to battle so vigorously and for so long to gain the right to vote reflects the gap between our national ideals of democracy and the darker realities to which our elections have so frequently been linked. From voter suppression and intimidation (including the 1898 election day coup d’etat in Wilmington, North Carolina) to the presence of divisive and vitriolic rhetoric and attacks as part of just about every contested campaign in American history, elections have consistently revealed the dark sides and limits of our ideals of civic engagement.

Robert Frost
Robert Frost.

A compelling new PBS documentary film and accompanying book on President John F. Kennedy reflect both the idealized and the darker sides to democracy and civic engagement in America. Entitled JFK: The Last Speech, the project focuses on Kennedy’s longstanding, complex, and ultimately inspiring relationship with the poet Robert Frost, a dynamic that led to Kennedy’s last public address: a speech at the October 26, 1963, groundbreaking of the Robert Frost Library at Massachusetts’s Amherst College.

In his brief but moving speech, Kennedy lays out in particular the role that poets and artists can play in helping a society move ever closer to its ideals. He opens, “Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much. This was the special significance of Robert Frost.

The Frost Library
The Frost Library.

He brought an unsparing instinct for reality to bear on the platitudes and pieties of society.” And later, he frames more broadly that poetic role: “If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential.” Kennedy concludes with some of the many reasons why, inspired by Frost’s life and work, “I look forward to a great future for America.”

Kennedy’s speech at Amherst College on October 26, 1963.

On November 22, less than a month into that future, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Half a century of conspiracy theories notwithstanding, that act of political violence seems to have been the work of one disturbed man, Lee Harvey Oswald. Yet Kennedy’s visit to Dallas nonetheless connects quite clearly to the darkest side of American civic engagement, as exemplified by this flyer distributed throughout the city (likely by members of the John Birch Society) on the day before his assassination. The language and content of the flyer’s seven “charges” against Kennedy certainly embody rhetorical and political extremism, but it is the flyer’s title, “WANTED FOR TREASON,” that illustrates this dark side most overtly. After all, treason is one of the only crimes enumerated specifically by the Constitution, and one that per the U.S. Code of Laws is punishable by death.

John F. Kennedy
President John F. Kennedy.

Even if Oswald acted alone in his assassination of President Kennedy, he was still part of a larger moment, city, and culture that featured extreme and violent rhetoric.

That flyer, like all such unhinged and incendiary political vitriol, reflects the precise opposite of the opening of Kennedy’s speech: the worst kind of spirit that can inform and control our national strength and civic engagements. That spirit animates the flyer’s language throughout, from the repetition of “betraying” to the phrase “illegally invaded a sovereign State,” the emphasis on “Aliens” to the reference to “Communist inspired racial riots.” Kennedy’s treasons here represent attacks on America from a variety of “others,” foreign and domestic enemies who must be stopped at all costs if, as the John Birch Society often framed it, the nation was to be “saved.”

A week ago, another disturbed gunman took eleven lives at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. Like Lee Harvey Oswald, Robert Bowers acted alone, and of his own volition. But he too lives in a moment and culture defined by vitriolic and unhinged rhetoric, rhetoric closely tied to an upcoming election, rhetoric to which Bowers responded directly in social media posts on immigrant “invaders” funded by Jewish Americans and coming to the United States to “slaughter my people.” And while assassinations and mass shootings exist outside of civic engagement entirely, such extreme and violent rhetoric represents instead the ugliest and most cynical form of civic engagement and participation, one that seeks to motivate Americans through opposition, division, and fear.

That darkest form of civic engagement has always been the underbelly of our democratic ideals, and has resurged with a vengeance in the early 21st century. In moments like that, we need to hear and respond to the words and ideas of Kennedy’s last speech that much more fully. And, most of all, we need to heed his call to pursue the highest ideals of civic engagement, from reading and writing to conversation and community to, most definitely, voting.

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  1. Your last paragraph, Professor Railton, sums up where we’re at as a nation and what we should be doing to fix it, if there was any kind of collective consciousness (and serious desire) in this country to really do so. The level of anger, intolerance/ignorance, selfishness and more in this information age, grows by the day.

    It is, and should be possible for small groups to form to at least try to realize President Kennedy’s pursuit to the higher callings in his speech here. Thanks for including it. Here we see him almost for the last time speaking to the college students about their obligation to give back to society, or pay it forward in a current phrase.

    Unfortunately his speech would be laughed at and mocked by the students of today. Many I’m sure at that time were inspired to do as he asked, by joining the Peace Corps and doing other things for the common good he inspired.

    What colleges/universities stand for now would be unrecognizable to JFK today, but no more so than the Democratic and Republican parties, corporate America and everything else too complicated to even start mentioning here. Suffice to say greed and only greed at the expense of everything else has been a really bad thing.

    JFK’s assassination could have been as simple (I suppose) as the result of Lee Harvey Oswald alone, like Robert Bowers last week in Pittsburgh. In 56 years, every possible attempt to answer that question has been tried and tried again. It’s a wicked, horrible event that happened that day, that this country has never recovered from, and never will. Whether it was just Oswald or a monstrous plot by our own government, the results are the same. Thanksgiving Day this year falling on the 22nd is sad and ironic to those to whom the date even means anything to anymore.


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