I was only 3 when President John F. Kennedy died, but Ill never forget what happened that day as my grandmother and others cried. You see, we were Catholics living down in the then-segregated Deep South. Kennedy was our hope for a better tomorrow.
I was 8 when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died, five years later. Ive not had an event impact me so strongly except the loss of family members.
King was bringing the better tomorrow Kennedy had promised. Still, we had Kennedys brother, Bobby.
Two months and two days later, we lost Bobby Kennedy to another assassins bullet. Bobby was the last public figure big enough to carry our hopes and strong enough to make a difference. In August, the Democratic Convention was nominating a new candidate, since President Lyndon Johnson had decided not to seek reelection.
Thousands of young men and women had converged on Chicago to peacefully protest the ongoing Vietnam War. They were holding a Festival of Life near the convention hall when a confrontation erupted. Over three days, more confrontations took place, and ended with what the so-called Walker Report, issued by a commission headed by future Illinois Gov. Daniel Walker, called a police riot, as students were beaten bloody.
Inside the hall, Mike Wallace and Dan Rather, both of CBS News, were knocked around by convention security, such was the tension on the floor. Connecticut Sen. Abraham Ribicoff spoke from the podium of Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago, while the mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley, was caught by TV cameras yelling curses at the Senator.
The Democratic disunity that came out of the convention led in no small way to the election of Richard Nixon and the crimes of Watergate.
In 1992, after her sister divorced her husband, a grandchild separated from his wife, and Windsor Castle caught fire, Queen Elizabeth referred to that year as annus horribilis. I was about to write decadis horribilis in regard to John Kennedys death 50 years ago and what followed. But, terrible as that day was, my aching feelings are overridden by his hope and legacy. Together, Bobby, Martin and John inspired those of us who were left to carry on, as John said in is inaugural address, knowing that here on Earth, Gods work must truly be our own.
John Kennedys legacy is formidable.
He was our first Catholic president. While a woman hasnt broken the glass ceiling to the Oval Office yet, the world is open to the possibility, even anticipating it. Once Kennedy overcame the first barrier to the presidency, those remaining were a frontier we were bound to cross.
Kennedy opened the space age, not only setting the goal of putting a man on the moon, but additional goals of developing a nuclear rocket that would allow the exciting and ambitious exploration of space, perhaps beyond the moon, perhaps to the very end of the solar system itself. Today, we are in a race with India and Europe, China and Russia to be the first to land a man, or woman, on Mars.
Kennedy, at Amherst College a month before his death, said America should be known for more than its industrial and military might.
I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well, he said. He wanted America to be a country that gives full recognition of the place of the artist.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick was 7 when Kennedy was killed, living in Chicago.
He watched the funeral with his grandparents and saw his grandfather weep. It was an insight to what JFKs administration and his leadership meant to a couple of third-grade-level educated black people who had grown up in the South, he told The Republican of Springfield, Mass.
Kennedy conceived and developed the Peace Corps, where Americans give two years of their lives helping underdeveloped countries in training workers.
When Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, the Peace Corps was already there. In fact, some 8,700 volunteers have served in the Philippines since 1961, and more than 210,000 people have served in a total of 139 countries.
The Civil Rights struggle began in earnest under Kennedy. He addressed the issues enveloping the nation, and especially the segregated South. He recognized that it was more than a political or legal issue. We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.
In New York, Kennedy outlined his support for a Medicare program — the very same one we have now.
In that speech he met identical arguments being raised against Obamacare. Harry Truman said that 14 million Americans had enough resources so that they could hire people in Washington to protect their interests, and the rest of them depended upon the President of the United States, Kennedy said.
Kennedy touched the nations idealism. He inspired. He set goals. Very few were reached during his presidency. But they were realized.
John Kennedys most lasting legacy is the decency and idealism he inspired, a commitment to being a better people and nation, a vision for New Frontiers.
(Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News, and a contributing columnist to Ms. Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine.)