As with so many in my generation, President John F. Kennedy's call to "ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country" struck a deep chord with me. A desire to serve was embedded in my heart, but his assassination -- along with the deaths of his brother, Robert, and Martin Luther King Jr. and the terrible war in Vietnam -- led me to question which America to serve and how best to serve it.
My relation to Kennedy began in August 1956, when I was 13. Our family spent two days visiting the Gettysburg battlefield, an experience that fed an avid interest in American history. My father's grandfather lost his hand at the Third Battle of Winchester with the New Hampshire Volunteers, and he changed his middle name from Lee to Lincoln during the war.
On the long ride north from Gettysburg to Rochester, N.Y., we listened intently to the Democratic National Convention on our 1955 Chevy's radio. Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson had thrown open the vice presidential nomination to a floor vote, and a charismatic young senator from Massachusetts made an unexpectedly strong showing against Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee.
In a wild and dramatic finish on the third ballot, Sen. Al Gore Sr. of Tennessee withdrew his candidacy and threw his support to Kefauver. Pennsylvania -- with Catholic David Lawrence, Pittsburgh's mayor -- tightly holding the reins of power, gave all of its votes to Kefauver. Kennedy would have to wait.
In high school, I extended my focus from history to politics. Moving away from the Cold War preoccupations of the good nuns at my grade school, I became an admirer, under my mother's influence, of Franklin D. Roosevelt. My parents got me a subscription to US News & World Report. I read it intently, thrilled by the student sit-downs in the South. I avidly followed Kennedy's 1960 primary campaign and admired him for confronting the Catholic issue head-on before ministers in Texas.
An activist Young Democrat, I was invited to a 7 a.m. meeting in mid-September with Robert Kennedy, the advance man for his brother's campaign rally at the War Memorial in Rochester. He talked with five non-voting high school students for 20 minutes. A framed campaign brochure with his signature hangs in my home. He invited us to join him at a labor-union breakfast and a meeting with black ministers.
Days later, JFK addressed 8,000 enthusiastic supporters about the capacity of Americans "to meet any responsibilities or bear any burdens" in the cause of freedom. America can be a beacon to the world "if we are building a better society here, if we are struggling constantly and earnestly, if the president of the United States is indicating the moral imperative behind the struggle against discrimination in all parts of the United States, if we maintain in this country full employment, if we are using our great productive capacity to the fullest, if we are developing the best educational system in the world, a system which will turn out not merely mathematicians, scientists and engineers, but educated men and women who can make a judgment about the world around them."
Portraying a global struggle between slavery and freedom, Kennedy ended with an 1860 quote from Abraham Lincoln. "I know there is a God and that He hates injustice. I see the storm coming and I know His hand is in it. But if he has a place and a part for me, I believe that I am ready." Kennedy continued: "Now, 100 years later, we know there is a God and we know He hates injustice, and we see the storm coming, but if He has a place and a part for us, I believe that we are ready."
Two events in JFK's presidency stand out starkly. The first was the president's facing down of corporate America in the figure of Roger Blough, chairman of U.S. Steel, over price hikes that occurred shortly after Kennedy jawboned Dave McDonald, president of the United Steelworkers, into accepting the smallest negotiated wage increase since World War II. Kennedy, believing that he had an understanding from labor and management to control inflation, felt betrayed. Kennedy threatened to withhold military contracts from steelmakers that refused to rescind the price increase. Corporate America backed down but was not amused. Henry Luce, the most powerful media voice in the country, delivered a veiled threat in a Fortune article titled, "Steel: The Ides of April," an allusion to the assassination of Julius Caesar.
The second event was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy showed great discipline and flexibility in establishing a position of understanding and compromise with Nikita Khrushchev as Russian ships approached an American naval blockade provoked by Russia's missile installation. At Boston College, which I attended from 1961 to 1963, a dozen priests were hearing student confessions, long lines winding out the chapel doors as hundreds of young men prepared for war or possible annihilation.
Early in June 1963, as George Wallace refused to desegregate the University of Alabama and Kennedy courted support for the Civil Rights Act, I hitchhiked to New Mexico to serve as a volunteer in a small Hispanic parish. Hitching south out of Nashville, Tenn., I was picked up by a tight-lipped man in a black sedan, destination Birmingham, Ala. He claimed to have been Eisenhower's pilot and was probably Justice Department or FBI.
As we entered Birmingham in the evening, he stopped for gas and, in the midst of a group of hostile whites, I heard my president's voice on the radio. "We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. 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."
At dusk, my driver pulled up to Kelly Ingram Park, the eye of the storm in Birmingham's civil-rights movement. Very involved in civil-rights activities, I had recently taken part in a Freedom Ride targeting segregated facilities on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Surrounded by Birmingham police cars, I caught a glimpse of Bull Connor. With images of police dogs and water hoses in my head, I crossed the street to the 16th Street Baptist Church, where I approached a group of black women and young girls at the front door. I blessed and thanked them. I was struck by the luminosity of their faces, their joyous strength, their pride. Later, I wondered whether any of them were among the four little girls killed in the bombing of the church in September.
After attending the March on Washington in August 1963, I went to Belgium for a year at the University of Louvain. On the evening of Nov. 22, I returned to my room in the Home Congolais, a very tense dorm in which half of the students were black and half were white. I turned the French radio station on and heard the announcer intone: "Le president est mort" (The president is dead). First, I thought he meant de Gaulle, but hearing "Dallas" and "Texas," I understood that it was Kennedy. The world seemed frozen in time. Americans huddled together that night devastated by the news. Could it have been an inside job? Kennedy's call for nuclear disarmament, rumors he was preparing to begin American withdrawal from Vietnam and his increasingly activist role against segregation all fed suspicions of foul play.
My doctoral thesis on Emmanuel Levinas, a French Jewish philosopher, led me to research libraries in Paris and Jerusalem. In June 1968, returning to Paris from Israel where the Tet Offensive and Martin Luther King's assassination had shaken me to the core, I hitched across North Africa. Somewhere in Algeria, I hauled myself into a heavy truck, burning oil and grinding gears in the hot sun. After a while, the Arab driver yelled across the dusty, noisy cab: "Kennedy est mort." I answered, "Je sais" ("I know"). He yelled back, "Non! Pas John. Robert!" At that moment, I felt the full force of the despair and anger of my generation.
Returning to the United States in 1969, I lived in the Gary, Ind.-Chicago industrial zone for several years and was close to events surrounding the murder by Chicago police of Black Panther Fred Hampton. The Weathermen were asserting the necessity of violent resistance to the system. The nonviolence of King and the optimism of the Kennedys about American politics were sorely tested. In the end, however, the tragedies of our generation deepened in me the belief that the nonviolent reformation of our wounded world is the only viable course. As King asserted, the choice is nonviolence or non-existence.
John Kennedy's call to service still resonates in my heart. If we are to "meet any responsibilities or bear any burdens," we urgently need men and women who can "make a judgment about the world around them." As Kennedy came to understand, America can be a beacon to the world only to the degree that we are "struggling constantly and earnestly" to build a better society, to overcome exploitation, inequality and violence at home -- not perpetrate them abroad. Resisting greed, respecting work, pursuing peace, justice and environmental restoration -- therein lies the service we can do for our country, the earth and her people.
Charles McCollester (email@example.com) of Mount Washington is president of the Battle of Homestead Foundation and author of "The Point of Pittsburgh: Production and Struggle at the Forks of the Ohio." In 2008, he retired as a professor and director of the Pennsylvania Center for the Study of Labor Relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.