Assessing a Legacy Still in Progress

President Kennedy's tragic death moved others to carry forth his vision for the nation.

President Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy wave from Air Force One as they depart Bogotá, Colombia, after their 1961 tour of South America. (Marion S. Trikosko for USN&WR)
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Following John F. Kennedy's assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, legions of young people felt called to join the Peace Corps he had founded. Harvard student (now Harvard professor) Marshall Ganz quit school and went down South to register African-Americans to vote. Boston kiddie show host Rex Trailer, who called his fictional "Boomtown" "the friendliest Western town on TV,'' banished his beloved guns from his program.

All were moved by JFK's death a half century ago, less than three years into his presidency. Arguably, Kennedy's passing had a more enduring impact on the nation than his brief service in the White House. The assassination robbed a nation of its innocence and represented to many Americans the death not just of a man but of an idea. And since Kennedy had only begun to advance an agenda whose potential success or trajectory no one can know, the last 50 years, for his admirers, have been about continuing a legacy that had barely gotten started. The what-could-have-been factor has been a driving force behind the battles waged on civil rights, voting rights and a slew of other missions and programs that the young president championed. "Some people said we mourn Kennedy not for what he did, but for what he was about to do,'' says Allan A. Saxe, a political science professor at the University of Texas in Arlington and a JFK expert. Kennedy's staff and family "wanted him so much to be known as a great president, that they reworked it so much.''

Some of JFK's missions have not merely advanced but have blossomed in the 50 years since his death, as activists and lawmakers (most notably the late Sen. Ted Kennedy) have battled to solidify his legacy on everything from disability rights to national service. Some initiatives – like JFK's focus on physical fitness for young people, a goal first lady Michelle Obama continues to press for today – are still works in progress. Other goals and programs JFK pursued, advocates complain, have not fared so well.

Advances in civil rights are often associated with the late president, but in reality he was slow to push Congress on it, historians note. Kennedy's administration proposed a comprehensive civil rights bill; he strengthened the Civil Rights Commission; and, perhaps most provocatively, he federalized the Alabama National Guard to protect African-American students attempting to enroll at the University of Alabama against the wishes of segregationist Gov. George Wallace. But JFK was initially nervous about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington in 1963, worried it could become chaotic (his administration eventually stepped in to help organize it). And Kennedy was less aggressive about pushing a sweeping civil rights bill through Congress in his first term, concerned it would alienate Southern senators and imperil other parts of his agenda. It was President Lyndon B. Johnson – a Texan, and former Senate majority leader – who ultimately was able to wrangle Congress into passing the landmark act. LBJ had Kennedy's tragic death to help make his case, says Jeffrey Engel, a history professor at Southern Methodist University. "Johnson was able to get some of these bills passed because he was able to use Kennedy's legacy as a means of motivating legislators,'' Engel says. "He was really wonderful not only at personal persuasion, but at saying, 'we have to do this as a tribute to our fallen president.'"

LBJ also won passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, furthering a goal Kennedy outlined in his civil rights speeches. Later, Ted Kennedy would succeed in getting the voting age lowered to 18 with the Vietnam-era slogan "old enough to fight, old enough to vote.'' But decades later, advocates fear there is a modern retrenchment of those protections. A recent Supreme Court decision struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act – the map that dictated which states must get advance permission before changing voting laws. Now a number of jurisdictions have approved or proposed voter ID laws, limited early voting, and shrunk the number of voting sites – all moves critics say are intended to suppress the vote, especially the minority vote. "We had a framework in place for solving the problem'' of discriminatory voting rules, says Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center for Justice in New York City. "We've really eroded that significantly.''