Camelot King JFK was the champion of equality for all

28 November 2013


John F Kennedy’s time in office was cut tragically short, but he was one of the greatest American presidents, argues Jim McGovern

It is often said that people over a certain age will remember where they were when they heard that President John F Kennedy had been assassinated.

I was a seven-year-old boy living in the Maryhill area of Glasgow.

That Friday evening, my father, Tommy, took me to visit my Glasgow grandparents, James and Mary McGovern.

Like many people in Glasgow and, indeed, throughout Scotland of an Irish/Roman Catholic background, my grandparents had a photograph, a calendar in this case, of JFK on the wall of their hallway.

I distinctly remember it had a green border with a shamrock in each corner.

As soon as we arrived at my grandparents’ house, my grandmother told us the tragic news of the events in Dallas earlier that day, November 22 1963.

I remember we all went to our local chapel, St Charles’, to say prayers for the stricken President and his family.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born into an Irish/American Catholic family of eight brothers and sisters in Brookline, Massachusetts.

By the age of just three, Jack, as he was known, had already suffered whooping cough, measles and chicken pox, marking an unusual beginning to what was to be a fantastic life, tragically cut short.

He has gone down in history as the perhaps the most ill President in American history, having been given the last rites on three occasions, undergone spinal surgery three times to alleviate chronic back pain, suffered from Addison’s disease and came close to death following hospital infection.

Determined to overcome much of the prejudice against his Irish/Catholic background, Jack vowed to make his mark in politics in support of equality for all.

This drive and determination to overcome the odds would be a major characteristic that would allow him to reach the White House in 1960.

His campaign brought together the energy of youth and the pragmatism of long-standing aides from his senatorial campaigns, such as Ted Sorensen, his speechwriter, who drafted the now famous inaugural address delivered so memorably on January 20 1961.

This team working allowed Kennedy to capture the spirit emerging in 1960s’ America.

His speeches still resonate strongly today as when the words were first spoken.

Who cannot be stirred by phrases such as “The torch has passed to a new generation”, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but rather what you can do for your country”, and asking humanity to come together in order to advance the cause of “the freedom of man”.

At no time in our past have we had as easy access to information as we do now, but only with a united humanity, as called for by JFK, can we advance the cause of freedom and turn this resource to knowledge, meaning we may we see the advance of science, technology and new economic ideas enabling human kind greater ways to achieve full equality.

Kennedy used the office of president to challenge the conservative-held beliefs of government institutions at home and abroad.

Despite the continual lobbying from his aides wanting the United States to take military action in Vietnam, Cuba and Laos, he took a stand and, instead, opted to put his faith in a common humanity that could see through differences without the need for war.

Just two years into his presidency at the age of 45, Kennedy faced the Cuban Missile Crisis which, as we now know after the release of archive material took the world so close to nuclear war.

Yet the odds were overcome as Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev realised the potential for what might occur and a settlement was agreed.

Kennedy’s time in office coincided with mass change in civil society as black Americans campaigned under the banner “Free but not Equal”, and Martin Luther King described his dream of a better America.

Kennedy took on his own party, which was divided on north-south lines over measures to promote equality.

His success in Congress was limited due to the polarising nature of the issue, but this was not through a lack of effort on the part of the president.

For the first time since Abraham Lincoln, the struggle of American minorities of all religions, creeds, beliefs and ethnicities was back at the top of the political agenda.

When asked why John F Kennedy is my political inspiration, I point to his overcoming the odds to become one of the greatest presidents of the United States whose all too short time in office had great impact, not only in his own but throughout the world.

Growing up in Glasgow and then Dundee, leaving school at the age of 16 to become an apprentice in the construction industry, an active career in politics seemed far removed.

I became involved in politics via my trade union links and was eventually elected as Labour MP for Dundee West in 2005.

To be elected, and continuing to serve as the Member of Parliament for my local community and the people within it, continues to be a most humbling experience for me.

I started by saying that most people of a certain age remember where they were when they heard of the assassination of JFK.

On June 5 1968, I was at a school camp called Belmont, about 15 miles from Dundee, playing football with school friends when one of the teachers approached us and told us that John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s brother, Robert Francis Kennedy, had been assassinated in Los Angeles.

This remains my abiding memory of that two-week school camp in June 1968.

Jim McGovern's article first appeared in Tribune magazine last week

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