|AUSTIN, November 17 - The 50th anniversary of President John Kennedy’s assassination this year is poignant for those of us who were well along in high school or had begun college when we heard the news that awful Friday afternoon.
We still remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when the word came. I was in the locker room in the seminary dormitory with some classmates when a friend ran in to tell us. First came shock; then, hopeful denial. The television, however, confirmed the unbelievable reality. The next three days we rarely budged from the front of the television until the state funeral had ended.
Kennedy was for many of us the promise of our generation. His eloquence, humor, and charm captured our idealism, as certainly as his call-to-action inauguration address – “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” He inspired us to build our community and bring it further along the path of democracy. And he urged us to reach out to the world. The Peace Corps, which Kennedy proposed at the University of Michigan during his campaign, captured our imagination.
Tragic history has a way of deadening dreams, and casting youthful idealism upon its ash heap. We strove to resist that trajectory and continued to push our energy forward in the civil rights movement, and those movements that followed … for women, the environment, and peace.
Many of my generation answered the call, and, with the help of Lyndon Johnson’s masterful implementation, and expansion, of Kennedy’s ideals, joined the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, or the War on Poverty. Others of us dedicated ourselves to other visions of civil society. Some of us, like the three civil rights workers in Mississippi and others, were brutally tortured unto death. Many were beaten bloody at lunch counters and on buses and had snarling dogs set upon them. Terroristic violence even reached into the next generation and killed four girls at Sunday school in Birmingham.
We endured the pain of the unimaginable assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and strove with grit to keep the dream alive and steady the course, despite the odds set against us.
Of course, we were not alone. We were building on the shoulders of the other generations in our time, and marching with them. All of us were honoring the legacy, lives, and struggles of those who had gone before us and now rested in peace. But it was Kennedy’s clarion voice that called us younger folks forth.
I myself ended up in the farm workers movement, following the leadership of César Chvez, and eventually into broader human rights efforts.
As I look back 50 years, I have learned that the struggle is so much more difficult than what we had seen through our idealistic-tinted glasses. I still cannot bear to watch the anniversary replays of President Kennedy’s assassination, and this year is even worse.
But there is never a moment that I don’t feel the stirring of heart deep within when I watch his inaugural address or listen to his speeches calling upon our “better angels,” as another assassinated president, Abraham Lincoln, did a hundred years earlier.
It is with the same stirring of heart that I watch the next generations so passionately pick up the struggle to make the dream real.
James C. Harrington is founder and director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, a nonprofit foundation, that seeks to promote civil rights and economic and racial justice for low-income people throughout Texas.