By Frank F. Islam
On May 29, the United States and the world will celebrate the 100th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s birth.
Tragically, President Kennedy, or JFK as he was known universally, did not live to see the ripe old age of 100 or even get close to it. He was assassinated on November 22, 1963 — when he was only 46 years old — as he sat with his wife Jackie in an open top convertible in a Dallas motorcade.
Kennedy’s premature and horrific demise caused professor of history Robert Dallek to title his brilliant biography on JFK “An Unfinished Life”. While Kennedy’s life was unfinished, his legacy lives on through the works and lives of others.
The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum is devoting one year to a centennial celebration of the President. On its website, the Library states, “John F. Kennedy’s legacy is a vision of political action and public service based on courage, service, inclusion and innovation.”
Let me highlight Kennedy’s legacy in five areas: Public service, civil rights, peace & diplomacy, arts & culture, and science & innovation.
Public Service: In 1961, Kennedy established the Peace Corps to encourage mutual understanding between America and people of other nations and cultures. The Peace Corps thrives today. Since its inception, some 200,000 Peace Corps volunteers have served in over 139 countries.
Civil Rights: Kennedy advocated full legal equality for African Americans. A comprehensive Civil Rights Bill was drafted in the fall of 1963. It was passed after Kennedy’s death as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The civil rights movement moved forward from there, breaking barriers and tearing down walls.
Peace & Diplomacy: In October 1963, Kennedy signed a Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty among the US, Russia and Great Britain. Thirty-three years later, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty signed by 71 nations. President Clinton signed it but the Senate rejected it by a vote of 51 to 48.
Arts & Culture: JFK’s effect as a leader for arts and culture in the US is unparalleled and unmatched. During his presidency, he took the lead in raising funds for a National Cultural Museum. After his assassination, Congress designated the National Cultural Museum as a “living memorial” to Kennedy. In 2017, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is one of the foremost venues of its type in the world. The Kennedy Center exemplifies the legacy of our country. He reminded us when he said: “Art nourishes the roots of our culture.”
Science and Innovation: As part of the space race against Russia, in 1961 Kennedy called upon the nation to commit to the ambitious goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American to travel in space. In February of 1962, astronaut and future Senator John Glenn orbited the earth. On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 crew set foot on the moon and came back safely. America’s record in exploring the galaxy has grown exponentially since then.
In addition to his accomplishments and legacy in these areas, President Kennedy also had a substantial and positive influence on relations between the US and India and on religious tolerance and ecumenism.
During his presidency, he sent two of the US’ top thought leaders, John Kenneth Galbraith and Chester Bowles, to India as ambassadors. His wife Jacqueline visited India and Pakistan in March 1962.
Most importantly, in terms of economic development, he ensured a commitment of nearly $1 billion annually in aid to India — the largest amount for any nation at that time. Important US projects in India, in addition to food aid, included IIT Kanpur fashioned after MIT, Nagarjuna Sagar Dam in Andhra Pradesh; and the Premier automobile factory in Mumbai.
Finally, even though he was a practising Catholic, Kennedy held all religions in high regard. In speaking before the Protestant Council of New York City in November 1963, he said, “The family of man is not limited to a single race or religion, to a single city, or country… the family of man is nearly three billion strong. Most of its members are not white and most of them are not Christian.”
President Kennedy went on to say, “The members of this family should be at peace with one another.”
I remember those words of President Kennedy as we approach his centenary anniversary. I also remember the words from Camelot, the Broadway musical of his era:
Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known
President Kennedy brought America its Camelot. By remembering him and his legacy now — perhaps it will be possible to bring that once upon a time spot and shining moment back again.
(Frank Islam is an Indian-American entrepreneur, philanthropist and thought leader. He is on the Board of Trustees of the Kennedy Center. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])