Obama, the Kennedys and "Change We Can Believe In"


Caroline Kennedy’s New York Times op-ed endorsement of Senator Barack Obama alludes to the idealism and inspiration unleashed by her father during his presidency and its resonances in the Obama campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. She contends that Obama, like JFK, "has a special ability to get us to believe in ourselves, to tie that belief to our highest ideals and imagine that together we can do great things." Yet, beyond inspirational leadership, the question about who we are and how we are bound together to make "change we can believe in" requires both historical illumination and social grounding.

In the case of the presidency of JFK, it should be remembered that in his campaign against Richard Nixon he often attacked Nixon and the Eisenhower Administration from the right on national defense issues, even going as far as fabricating a so-called missile gap that had emerged between the US and the Soviet Union. Although not behind all of the planning for the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, Kennedy did give half-hearted support to the operation. (The belief by many of these Bay of Pig veteran Cuban exiles and their rogue CIA handlers of a Kennedy betrayal may have led to the tragic blowback in Dallas in November 1963.) His macho cold-war posturing in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 almost resulted in a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union had it not been for the willingness of Khrushchev to back down. However, as a consequence, Kennedy developed into a more willing partner for nuclear disarmament.

Kennedy was also a very reluctant convert to civil rights, often appointing conservative federal judges to appease senior-ranking Southern Congressional Democrats. When the Freedom Riders gained international prominence in 1961 in their heroic efforts to integrate interstate travel in the Deep South against vicious racist violence, JFK and RFK’s first concern was what damage such confrontations were doing to the US global reputation. After initially trying to stop further Freedom Rides, RFK attempted to negotiate some limited, but ultimately ineffective, protection for the non-violent integrated group of bus riders. Moreover, it wasn’t until thousands of teenage African-Americans were being beaten, bitten by police dogs, and battered by fire hoses in Birmingham in May 1963 that JFK was moved to envision real civil rights legislation. In his most eloquent statement on the black freedom struggle, Kennedy addressed a national audience about the "moral issue" confronting the nation" "It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated."

Shortly after Kennedy finished his moving speech, Medgar Evers, the dynamic leader of the Mississippi NAACP, was shot down in his driveway. Obviously, there were those who were not prepared to grant any equal rights and equal opportunities to African-Americans. Throughout the rest of the 1960’s, however, blacks and other minorities struggled for those rights, not just to expand the dreams of JFK and MLK, but to give meaning and dignity to the demands for equality. RFK found his own prophetic voice in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. King, harnessing the hopes of a younger generation desirous of an end to racial injustice and to a lethal and immoral war. But only two months after Dr. King’s murder, RFK was assassinated, ending for many the hope for real change.

Now, we are witnesses to the "audacity to hope" from Barack Obama. Obama claims that he wants to enlist us, like the Kennedys before him, in a crusade for "change we can believe in." Certainly, he has awakened a desire for something different, something better, as noted by Caroline Kennedy and numerous others from pundits to politicians to people on the street. Whether he can become an inspiring instrument for real change is open to question. What is clear, however, is that, like the Kennedys before him, he can never become that instrument unless there are massive social movements for change as there were in the 1960’s.

Those movements did not, in fact, meld all of us together in some mystic chords of memory or imagined transcendent ideals. It took the courageous efforts of millions of ordinary citizens, willing to take on the power structure and its machinery of exacting repression, which pushed JFK and RFK into taking leadership on the important moral and political issues of the day. It is instructive that Obama invites such efforts with soaring, albeit overblown, rhetoric, appropriating in the process the slogan of one of the most vital movements of our day: "Si, se puede–Yes, we can!"

But can we? Do those of us working in our local trenches to stop the war, oppose economic and social injustice, and achieve some kind of environmental sustainability have the capacity to come together not behind a candidacy but for the larger cause of fundamental social change? Some of us will be distracted by the siren songs of electoral campaigns, the media circus of spectatorship, and the illusions of third party politics. However, if we want "change we can believe in," we have to mount sustained organizational efforts to challenge those in power and those who would lead us to a new Camelot. If we are on the verge of a new era, a new frontier, let us be the ones to lead and let those who would lead us try to catch up.

FRAN SHOR teaches in the History Department at Wayne State University. He is an activist with numerous groups for peace and social justice.



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