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JFK's Inaugural Speech: Great But Silent On Racial Woes

Jan 20, 2011

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Frank James

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Some of us wordsmiths will take any available chance to savor a great speech, like the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy's inaugural address that's being observed Thursday.

And it deserves to be remembered. It was a well-written speech which had the benefit of being delivered by the first president with rock star appeal.

Kennedy obviously made the speech, not the other way around. His vigor (or "vigah" as he would pronounce it) added to the electricity of it. You can still feel it through the decades.

If an inaugural speech defines a presidency, Kennedy's made clear he was the ultimate Cold Warrior. That spirit was captured best, perhaps, by one of the most ringing lines in a speech filled with them:

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.

As many have noted since the day of the speech itself while Kennedy focused on the battle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, he had nothing to say about the great moral struggle taking place in his very nation between segregationists and the Civil Rights movement.

Obviously, even taking passing notice that the fight against tyranny and oppression applied domestically as well as abroad, would likely have been a downer on such a celebratory day.

But surely there was a way Kennedy and his alter ego, Ted Sorenson, could have touched on the fight for constitutionally guaranteed human rights in his own nation.

That Kennedy would take on the Soviets in the speech but not Sen. John Stennis of Mississippi, not even with a light touch, makes the speech seem less than it could have been.

The speech is evidence of what many historians and Kennedy biographers have said over the years about the 35th president, that he wasn't exactly a profile in courage on the race issue.

Too often, only when presidential action became unavoidable, did he act. That was true in 1962 when he was forced to send federal troops to restore order after whites rioted when James Meredith, a black student, started attending classes at the University of Mississippi.

Even so, that doesn't mean JFK's inaugural speech wasn't great. But it was certainly incomplete.

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