A common refrain from those who fondly recall John F. Kennedy was that he governed in a more innocent and hopeful time and that his assassination 50 years ago this Friday shattered that dream.
Many people are repeating this default setting of JFK lore – a belief that may have applied to them and their families but not to all.
Those of us who are descendants of people from the barrios, the ghettos and the anonymous margins of 1963 America have more complicated feelings about the man and those times. They weren’t very innocent years for our ancestors fighting to gain a foothold in America when discrimination was open and overt.
In California, some of us grew up hearing stories of our parents being mugged for speaking Spanish in public. Our ancestors toiled in hard-labor jobs, and our families viewed trips to McDonald’s as a luxury in the ’60s. We remember being the first in our little circles to go to college. Of being the first to confront the cultural complexities of integrated workplaces after being raised by families with little or no experience with which to guide us.
Within that context, JFK is a distant figure who means less to us than he did to our parents. Within the Latino community, our parents were thrilled when JFK actually paid attention to them. They were blown away when Jacqueline Kennedy spoke Spanish in political ads targeting Latino voters in the 1960 presidential election.
The night before his assassination, JFK addressed the League of United Latin American Citizens in Houston.
But as many scholars have written since, Kennedy did not deliver on the hope he inspired among Latinos. African American civil rights heroes also had been frustrated with Kennedy, despite being enamored of him personally.
And then JFK went to Dallas, and then he was gone. My parents always remembered him frozen in time, just before the shots rang out on Dealey Plaza.
Those of us who came of age after Vietnam and Watergate had a harder time maintaining such reverence, when questioning authority became what you were supposed to do. As a journalist today, you are called a hack or a homer for waxing poetic about any politician or person in power. It’s just not done. We have too much access to current information and a fuller history of JFK that didn’t make into the official record when he was alive.
JFK mentioned African Americans and Latinos in his first presidential push of 1960, for which he deserves praise. However, decades of venerating JFK should not come at the expense of an undeniable truth – many people living in America had a very hard road on Nov. 22, 1963, and beyond. For them, hope and innocence were in short supply. Hard battles still lay ahead and good intentions were not enough. They weren’t enough for JFK any more than they are for Barack Obama or any other leader to be held accountable by our democracy.
That’s also what history teaches us – to view and accept our leaders beyond our idealized versions of them.