Remembering Who We Are

“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.” – John F. Kennedy

Photo Credit: U. S. Army Signal Corps photograph in the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston.

Today marks the 45th anniversary of the assassination of President John Kennedy.

Perhaps the most vivid memory of Kennedy I have comes from January 20, 1961 when my seventh-grade teacher wheeled a big, black & white television into the classroom.

“This morning,” she announced,” we are going to watch the inauguration of our new president.”

She promised his speech would be memorable. (What an understatement.) Even as a seventh-grader, completely disconnected from Washington and politics, I was absorbed by the inspiring words, inclusiveness and call to service.

This Thanksgiving, Kennedy’s words continue to have meaning, beginning with his opening expression of unity.

“We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom – symbolizing an end, as well as a beginning – signifying renewal as well as change.”

While Kennedy pays homage to the past, he speaks of a new future and re-dedication to human rights…

“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans–born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage – and unwilling to witness or permit the slow 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.”

…and that of liberty.

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Kennedy knows that actions speak louder than words.

“To our sister republics south of our border, we offer a special pledge – to convert our good words into good deeds – in a new alliance for progress – to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty.”

… advising us how to treat others.

“So let us begin anew – remembering on both sides, that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof… Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.” 

Right here, Kennedy is not only addressing other countries, but is speaking to us today, reminding us that…

United there is little we cannot do… Divided there is little we can do – for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.”

Reminding us that we are all in this together. However…

“In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. … The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it – and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

He’s inviting all of us to be part of the change. However, one sentence later he reminds us again, of our own duty.

“Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.” 

Sacrifice. Conscience. Good Deeds.

That’s what makes us strong; for in the end, this country is only as good as its commitment to “liberty and justice for all.”

And that strength cannot be extinguished by “dark powers.”

This country – which has survived bitter divisions before and grown stronger – has more work to do to ensure that all who come after us enjoy the same freedoms and rights we cherish today: Freedom of speech and religion; the right to trial by jury; to vote and to run for political office.

Despite division and disorder, we are the same Americans Kennedy spoke of: revolutionaries unified by the common “belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.”

One month before his assassination, in a speech given at Amherst College, Kennedy spoke directly to us, the next generation.

“I look forward to a great future for America, a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose.”

Kennedy’s words are worth remembering now, more than ever.

(Remembering another Kennedy, Robert and my summer of ’68.)

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