John F. Kennedy's Presidential reputation has ridden a roller-coaster in the half-century since his assassination. However, it seems there is always a patina of romance about the Camelot years that refuses to fade, no matter how many revelations about the backstory of JFK's administration come into the open.
As a scholar of American history, my personal take is that JFK was much more sizzle than steak for most of the brief years he was our leader. However, this month commemorates a pivot that, had gunshots in Dallas not interrupted it, might have done much to secure his reputation. Fifty years ago today, he signed the Equal Pay Act of 1963. The purpose of this law was to eliminate gender-based wage differentials. Of course, it's fallen far short of that goal. What is important is that, prior to that moment, there was no national goal about gender equity in pay scales. Recognizing that such a goal was needed is an accomplishment, albeit one of "let us begin" rather than "let us finish this job."
We can legitimately say that JFK's forty-eight hours on June 10 and 11, 1963 were among the most important in terms of Presidential boldness of the twentieth century. Also on this day fifty years ago, he made a commencement address at American University at which he declared to Premier Krushchev that the U.S. was ready to begin systematic negotiations toward corralling the destructive potential of nuclear weapons. This address led to negotiations which, two months later, culminated in the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty, ratified shortly before his death. The Cuban Missile Crisis had scared both sides enough to induce them to step back from the nuclear brink.
The following day was the celebrated confrontation-that-wasn't at the "schoolhouse door" in Tuscaloosa. Governor Wallace, after fulfilling his vow to block integration of the University of Alabama, likewise stepped back from the brink. The Kennedy Administration had prepared for an Ole Miss-style face-off. When it proved not to be necessary, JFK had Theodore Sorensen and his speechwriting staff change a scheduled Presidential address. On the evening of June 11, he announced that he was sending up to Congress what would, a year later, emerge as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Justice demands that we remember that progress didn't come easily in those days. Only a few hours after JFK's civil rights address, Medgar Evers was shot from ambush in Jackson. Eventually - too many years later - his killer was brought to justice and sent to prison for the rest of his days. The cycle of political violence that numbered Jackson, Dallas, Memphis, Los Angeles, and Laurel, MD among its notable locales was to shake our country in a way that few comparable stretches of years have done. At times of great political strife (as we are now enjoying), it's worth remembering that there have been worse times in our lives.