Like so many, I’m heartbroken and outraged by the recent killing of George Floyd in Minnesota while in the custody of police officers, the most recent example in a long history of racial injustice, attacks, and accusations—such as Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky—and the pain and fear that’s being felt across the country.
I often experience my “America feeling”—say, when I vote or when I look at the Statue of Liberty—and right now my America feeling is one of despair. So much injustice, so much violence experienced by the black people of our country, for so long. Our American ideal of “with liberty and justice for all” is so often violated.
When something is so huge, it’s hard for me to find the right words—and I find myself reaching for and repeating the right words from great leaders.
And in this case, I keep thinking of a speech given by John F. Kennedy, one that I know well from writing a biography of JFK. Kennedy was a complicated person and president, and to write that book, I studied him closely, to capture both the good and the bad. This speech isn’t his most famous speech—that’s probably his Inaugural Address, given in 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
It’s the speech he gave on June 11, 1963. After the Alabama National Guard was required to enforce a court order requiring the desegregation of the University of Alabama, and after watching a replay of Governor George Wallace’s defiance, Kennedy announced, “I want to go on television tonight.” This speech was one of Kennedy’s greatest—much of it improvised from an unfinished text.
I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents. This Nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.
Today we are committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free. And when Americans are sent to Viet-Nam or West Berlin, we do not ask for whites only. It ought to be possible, therefore, for American students of any color to attend any public institution they select without having to be backed up by troops. …
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. If an American, because his skin is dark…cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content…[to] stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay? …
Now the time has come for this Nation to fulfill its promise.
In reflecting on this moment and this speech, I’m asking myself, what can I do, in my own life, to help this nation to fulfill its promise?
It feels like a small gesture to donate money, but donating is something concrete we can do to support vital work that’s going on. We talked about it as a family, and decided to give to the Bail Project (“a non-profit organization designed to combat mass incarceration by disrupting the money bail system—one person at a time”) and to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (“America’s premier legal organization fighting for racial justice. Through litigation, advocacy, and public education, LDF seeks structural changes to expand democracy, eliminate disparities, and achieve racial justice in a society that fulfills the promise of equality for all Americans”). We have some familiarity with these organizations, especially because my husband Jamie is the incoming chair of the Osborne Association (“working for systemic reforms while we provide opportunities for people to reunite with their families, continue their education, connect to meaningful employment, and rebuild their lives after incarceration”).
For more ideas, here’s a long list of organizations playing different roles, including local organizations.
Although it also seems like a small gesture, to educate myself more, I’m turning to reading, and in the New York Times Ibram X. Kendi provides “An Antiracist Reading List,” a list of “books to help America transcend its racist heritage.” Some I’ve read, some are going on my list. Kendi also wrote the book How to Be an Antiracist, which I plan to read along with his book, Stamped from the Beginning. I also printed a copy of Sarah Sophie Flicker and Alyssa Klein’s “Anti-Racism Resources” that suggests books (for children and adults), documentaries, podcasts, movies, TV, and links for learning more about promoting racial justice. There’s a lot there, and I’ve just started making my way through its recommendations.
Kennedy’s speech was given almost sixty years ago, yet it remains so apt today. As an American, I am stopping and examining my conscience about this and other related incidents.
Liberty and justice for all. That is the work for all of us.