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50 Years Later: Attorney General Holder Reflects on President Kennedy’s Legacy
November 22nd, 2013 Posted by

The blog appears courtesy of Attorney General Eric Holder

Attorney General Holder visits the graves of President John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy

Attorney General Holder visits the graves of President John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy

Fifty years ago today, in Dallas, the life of the 35th President of the United States was ended by an assassin’s bullet. Like nearly all Americans who were alive on that terrible day, I’ll never forget the moment when I learned of John F. Kennedy’s death. On the afternoon of November 22, 1963, I was a 7th grader – on my way to science class – when I heard rumors that the president had been shot. I’ll always remember when, at the end of class, our teacher announced that the president had died. And when I got home from school later that day, I saw my father cry for the very first time.

This unthinkable event marked a turning point in my life, and in the lives of so many Americans who felt the heartbreak, the horror, and the sense of loss that accompanied such a profound national tragedy. In the decades since then, I have always regarded President Kennedy as a personal hero – not only because he challenged Americans to look to the stars, to confront a New Frontier, and to embrace the cause of civil rights – but because he exuded both optimism and vitality. He called new generations of Americans to public service. And he inspired in me, and in countless others, the belief that government can be a positive force – and that government service can be a noble, and deeply rewarding, endeavor.

Since President Kennedy’s assassination, I have regularly marked this anniversary by visiting his gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery. Before she passed away, I often brought my mother along with me, so we could pay tribute together to the man who inspired my career in public service, and to Robert F. Kennedy, who preceded me as Attorney General and rests just a short distance away.

This morning, as I stood just before dawn at President Kennedy’s eternal flame, I found it hard to believe that half a century has passed since he was taken from us. And I reflected on the vast and enduring legacy that he left – a legacy that stretches far beyond his thousand days in office. Over the course of three too-short years, he seized his moment in history to advance a bold vision, and a sweeping civil rights agenda, that has been changing the face of our nation ever since. He captured the imaginations of millions, including me, and inspired in us a new kind of patriotism – a patriotism anchored in the values that have defined this country since its founding, but brought vividly to life by his assurance that every citizen could, and in fact must, play a role in determining America’s future.

From the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to the space program and the Peace Corps, the achievements and advances that John F. Kennedy inspired – and set in motion – have far outlasted his presidency and his young life. In his extraordinary inaugural address – which I will always rate alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech as the most important of my lifetime – he called on Americans to achieve those things we knew to be right but believed to be impossible. And he demanded that his countrymen and -women look beyond themselves and set their sights, and pin their aspirations, on a distant horizon.

Every time I visit Arlington, I think about President Kennedy’s call to service – a call that continues to motivate me even today: to work in defense of those truths our forefathers once held to be self-evident, but which we must fight, every day, to secure. To protect the progress that’s been made by all who have rallied, and marched, and sacrificed – over the last two and a quarter centuries – in the name of civil rights. And to reclaim the values of equality, opportunity, and justice that must drive every public servant and every citizen to keep moving this country forward – knowing, as President Kennedy did, that this work will outlast us, but determined, as he once urged us, to begin.

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