I don’t remember where I was. When John F Kennedy became the fourth President of the United States to be assassinated, half a century ago this Friday, I was only a few months old.
Visiting his memorial library in Boston a few years ago, I questioned what JFK’s enduring legacy would be. Perhaps his establishment of the Peace Corps, which still sends American volunteers around the world to help the needy, or laws to end racial segregation.
But it is his soaring rhetoric in defence of freedom that still inspires. Kennedy’s injunction, in his inaugural address, to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” remains one of the most potent political phrases in history.
This week also saw the anniversary of another great speech by another assassinated President. 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln stood at the memorial at Gettysburg, site of one of the bloodiest battles in the US Civil War.
In just over two minutes, in just 271 words, Lincoln delivered what has become one of the most celebrated speeches of all time.
The President himself predicted that the world would “little note” his words. The Chicago Times called them ‘silly, flat and dishwatery utterances’. The Times of London was scathing.
They were wrong. Lincoln’s demand that the terrible loss of life should herald ‘a new birth of freedom’ for the United States, and that ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth’ still moves people to tears today.
This summer I stood at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, where those words are inscribed, and reflected on what they meant today.
Lincoln justified the war which saw 600,000 Americans killed by fellow Americans because it renewed the promise that the United States, ‘conceived in liberty’, would be ‘dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’.
Slavery was abolished, but the struggle for full civil rights continued for a century. Today, black and ethnic minorities in western countries are still disadvantaged. Millions of people live in countries where human rights are abused and democracy is denied.
Lincoln knew that equality had to be fought for. Kennedy said that the United States would ‘pay any price’ to ensure the survival and success of liberty. I wonder if we still believe that today, and whether we truly honour or understand their words.
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