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On 60th Anniversary of JFK’s Assassination, Reflecting on a Human Rights Legacy Cut Short

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John F. Kennedy on the campaign trail in 1960

November 22, 2023, marks the 60th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. This shocking event is engrained in the collective memory of Americans, and most view it as a defining event of the ’60s. The youngest elected president in US history led the country at a turbulent time. His short term included security challenges, chiefly the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, but also included high points like the formation of the Peace Corps, the March on Washington, and the signing of the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty on nuclear weapons. A recent Gallup poll conducted in June 2023 saw Kennedy’s retrospective approval rating rise to 90%— the highest of any post-World War II president.

While the Kennedy administration is known for several historic events, it also left a legacy in the field of human rights both at home and abroad. To learn more about Kennedy’s human rights legacy, we spoke with SIS professor and historian Sarah Snyder, who has studied and published research on human rights rhetoric and policy in the Kennedy administration.

Kennedy’s Language about Human Rights

John F. Kennedy’s focus on human rights and his inclusion of the term in his speeches began while he was rising through the political ranks as a US senator. During his 1961 presidential campaign, he applied a human rights lens to domestic and international policy issues. In his acceptance speech after receiving the Democratic Party nomination, Kennedy stated: “’ The Rights of Man’—the civil and economic rights essential to the human dignity of all men—are indeed our goal and our first principles.”

During his candidacy and presidency, Kennedy mentioned human rights in 38 public addresses, including his inauguration speech. Both his use of the term and his references to rights abuses in general were unique compared to previous US presidents. Prior to Kennedy, many Americans talked about rights abuses in the context of domestic rights, as opposed to more international, universal claims.

“Kennedy’s use of terminology may have been an effort to universalize the experiences that people have, whether it's in the United States or elsewhere, and to suggest that it's not only the rights of US citizens that we should be concerned about,” Snyder said.

Highlighting Human Rights Globally During His Administration

Kennedy was interested in human rights issues in several places around the world, with Africa being a large focus even before his presidency. During his time as a senator and into his time as president, he emphasized the decolonization of Africa and sought to distance the US from colonial powers in the region, such as Portugal. The administration took a stance of supporting African nationalism and independence.

South Africa was a specific point of focus for Kennedy, and his administration condemned the racial segregation taking place there. African American leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., called upon Kennedy to take an even firmer stance against South Africa’s apartheid, which prompted the administration and the UN Security Council to adopt Resolution 181 in August of 1963, which officially called for an embargo on arms deals with South Africa. The resolution became mandatory for all UN member states in 1977, and the embargo lasted until 1998. 

“The Kennedy administration no longer wanted to be in the business of supporting the military of South Africa, given its apartheid practices of formal discrimination against black South Africans,” said Snyder. “Shortly before the end of his presidency, he formally condemned apartheid, both through his ambassador at the United Nations and through this decision to stop selling arms to the South African government.”

Cuba was another long-standing focus during the Kennedy administration, both in terms of foreign policy and in terms of human rights. On the foreign policy front, Kennedy was deeply concerned with Cuba’s Soviet ties and the political threat that the communist Castro regime posed. Beyond the political threat from Cuba, the Kennedy administration would come to the brink of nuclear war in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. With Soviet missiles located just 90 miles off the coast of Florida, the Kennedy administration was focused on subverting nuclear disaster and addressing covert operations that Cuba and their Soviet allies were undertaking. Kennedy’s focus on human rights concerns in Cuba, however, focused primarily on the 50,000 political prisoners who were held by the Castro regime. Kennedy’s focus on human rights abuses in Cuba served not only to raise awareness of the situation but also to stigmatize the Cuban government and distance Cuba from the rest of the free world.

“In the wake of the failed efforts to remove Castro from power, Kennedy did talk about the plight of Cuban political prisoners. I think this is seen as a way to sort of undermine the Castro regime,” said Snyder.

Human Rights after Kennedy

Kennedy was one of the first presidents to bring human rights into his vernacular for public addresses. While the administration did focus on human rights concerns of both domestic and international importance, it was only the first step toward becoming a nation that values and fights for human rights at home and abroad.

Kennedy’s assassination shocked the world and landed a new president in office under very unusual circumstances. The early days of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency and agenda were framed to finish what Kennedy had started in Congress. Most notably, this work included passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In the fall of 1963, the bill won support from House and Senate Republican leaders and cleared several hurdles in Congress but did not get passed before Kennedy’s death, according to the JFK Library. The bill ultimately fell into the hands of the Johnson administration and was finally passed on July 2, 1964.

“I think the Johnson administration had to be very careful in what they were pushing forward at this time, and the emotional reaction and outpouring of support for Kennedy offered those who voted for this legislation the cover to finally pass meaningful legislation on civil rights and voting rights,” said Snyder.

The world may never know what kinds of civil and human rights legislation Kennedy could have passed if his term had not been tragically cut short, but the outpouring of worldwide support shown to the US following his assassination was without a doubt beneficial in moving forward.

“If you look around the world, there are John F. Kennedy boulevards, John F. Kennedy streets, and John F. Kennedy parks in so many different places. In the wake of his death, there was a perception that there was a tragic cutting short of his potential, and I think one thing that shows is that Kennedy and his spirits and ideas really resonated internationally,” Snyder explained. “There was an enormous amount of goodwill that was shared toward the United States that was generated through public commemorations in the wake of his assassination that helped build his legacy.”