Passing the Torch

The 42nd president assesses the civil-rights accomplishments of the 35th.

President Kennedy greets 16-year-old Bill Clinton in the Rose Garden of the White House, at an American Legion Boys Nation event, on July 24, 1963. (Arnie Sachs/CNP/Corbis)

P resident kennedy took office with great gifts and great promise in a time of challenges and change at home and abroad. He embodied the changing times, and he embraced the challenges with courage and vigor. In doing so, he grew on the job and made an enduring contribution to our ongoing efforts to form “a more perfect union.”

As a candidate, Kennedy had memorably reached out to Coretta Scott King when her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was arrested while leading a protest in Atlanta; once president, his actions were shaped by pragmatism as well as principle, by outside forces as well as inner conviction. So by the spring of 1963—the last spring of his life—he had arrived at a place where he could deliver a televised speech from the Oval Office on civil rights and segregation. And his fellow Americans had arrived at a place where they were at least willing to listen.

In that speech, on June 11, he made the case that the denial of basic civil rights to Americans of color wasn’t a partisan issue, a regional issue, or even, as he said, a legal or legislative issue alone—rather, he asked all who watched to broaden their idea of a common humanity:

If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?

While Kennedy was clearly aiming the definition of us at a white American audience, he was also asking that audience to expand its definition of us by imagining how others experienced racism and segregation. For those who could do so, African Americans were no longer them, but a part of us.

President Kennedy’s embrace of our common humanity is also reflected in many of the initiatives he proposed or enacted yet didn’t live to see bear fruit, among them the Civil Rights Act, the Food Stamp Act, an improved free-school-lunch program for poor children, and, abroad, the Peace Corps and the Alliance for Progress. Though his death was a tragedy we still mourn, he left behind legions of his fellow Americans and people the world over who embraced his vision and picked up the torch he lit.