50 Years after Assassination, JFK’s Legacy
November 22, 2013—Three months after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, I was born into a world that was already being shaped by his legacy. From civil rights to science, space, the Peace Corps, and environmental protection, President Kennedy launched major initiatives that led to transformative results.
As a child, I drew inspiration from pictures of JFK, RFK and MLK I kept on mybedroom wall. I associated this trinity of assassinated leaders with social justice, civil rights, and a bold, positive vision for America.
Today, as a new member of Congress, I appreciate more than ever President Kennedy’s imprint on our country: his ambitious policy initiatives, but even more so his ability to inspire Americans to believe in a better future and to do their part in building it.
Historians speak of an “unfinished” presidency, noting President Johnson ultimately signed the Civil Rights Act and President Nixon phoned Neil Armstrong when he landed on the moon. Yet we rightly regard civil rights and the space program as accomplishments of President Kennedy because he set the agenda, challenged us to think big, and inspired generations of Americans to make a difference.
In the space race, the pivotal moment was not Nixon’s 1969 phone call. It was Kennedy’s audacious declaration in 1961 that America would land a man on the moon and return him safely within the decade, setting in motion an extraordinary accomplishment of science and imagination. Similarly, while President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the stage was set a year earlier when Kennedy went on national television, after peaceful civil rights demonstrators were brutally attacked in Birmingham, and declared that our country’s “cries for equality” can no longer be ignored by any city, state or legislative body.
An underappreciated part of Kennedy’s legacy is his commitment to the environment. JFK understood the grave implications of Rachel Carson’s landmark “Silent Spring” and tasked his Science Advisory Committee with investigating whether her findings were true (they were). Kennedy translated his love for the coast into strong public lands protections: he authored the Cape Cod National Seashore Act and signed it into law as President in 1961. And in 1962 he established the Point Reyes National Seashore, which I proudly represent today.
Kennedy cared enough about public lands to appoint a conservation champion, Stuart Udall, to his cabinet. Udall went on to become one of America’s greatest Interior Secretaries. In eight years serving the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, he aggressively promoted expansion of public lands, including creating Redwood National Park which I also proudly represent. He helped pass landmark environmental laws from the Wilderness Act of 1964, to the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act in 1965, the National Historic Preservation Act and the Endangered Species Preservation Act in 1966, and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968—not to mention his pivotal role in defeating a proposal to dam the Grand Canyon.
In all of these areas, I cannot imagine so much American progress without President Kennedy’s bold declarations of purpose and leadership in setting the course.
Fifty years after the death of this President who dared us to imagine, perhaps we should imagine what he might do today under a new “New Frontier.” My guess: he would confront climate change, the greatest existential threat facing our country and the world, with a modern-day “moon shot.” I think he would pursue initiatives to reverse our disturbing income inequality trend, to invest in education and science, and to rebuild the middle class. And I’m confident he would try to improve our bitterly divisive political climate by invoking the values, history, and goals that unite us.
Our challenges are different than in President Kennedy’s day, but no less imperative for our future. We would do well to remember his legacy, which proves that when we are inspired to think big and believe in ourselves, America can do extraordinary things.
—Rep. Jared Huffman (as submitted for publication on 11/22/13 to Marin Independent Journal)