At Hemming Park, JFK plaque sparked awareness of how times change

JFK plaque Hemming Park in Jacksonville FL

I’d never noticed it somehow—the plaque dedicated to the late John F. Kennedy at Hemming Park in Jacksonville, FL. Wandering around, taking in sights and sounds around me, I stopped to snap a photo and contemplate what the plaque meant. I had no idea JFK had delivered a speech at Hemming Park on October 18, 1960.

Hemming Park; image Indie Art South

Months before that speech, Kennedy had accepted the nomination as his party’s candidate for president in 1960. I was very young when JFK ran for president, but I remember many in my family were big fans of this handsome young senator, a Democrat.

What did JFK say to those assembled in that park?

I found his speech, and before I say a word, it appears there were some grammatical errors between transferring the original hard copy to digital form.

It was a longish speech, considering the fact the candidate would go on to other Florida cities to stump that day. What really intrigued me, though, is the fact JFK would probably not be able to deliver that speech today without facing some serious criticism.

On the whole, it was a typical political stump speech relevant to those times. JFK stressed the danger of communism, specifically citing Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev as threats Richard Nixon, the Republican running for president, wouldn’t handle properly.

I didn’t realize, until I read this speech, how it presaged wars and conflicts in the following years. JFK rattled off countries at risk for communism—”Cuba? Now Laos. Possibly Guinea. Ghana voting with the Communists, possibly later in the year another country, Communist influence growing, the candidate for the Presidency of Brazil travels not to Washington to get our blessing, but to Havana to see Castro.” He threw in all of Latin America too, perhaps knowing that if one country in Latin America fell to communism, the ideology would spread.

Many years later, other presidents would be derided for the concept of democracy building, but from JFK’s lips, it sounded persuasive, I guess. That wasn’t the biggest thing that would get JFK in trouble today, though.

Kennedy, as he stood in one of my favorite parks in Jacksonville, first praised a man who was his friend and who had also served with him in Congress—Senator George Smathers. JFK also recognized Congressman Charley Bennett and others. Smathers and Bennett had both signed the Southern Manifesto four years earlier. This wasn’t unusual because 97 other Democrats and 2 Republicans had signed the document officially titled The Declaration of Constitutional Principles rebutting principles of integration. It had been only three years since then-president Dwight D. Eisenhower (Republican) had sent federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to ensure the admission of black students to a high school there.

That isn’t the worst part that would lead to JFK’s comeuppance, though.

Kennedy touted leaders in his party, and the first president he mentioned was Woodrow Wilson noted for his “new freedom” slogan. Long before I became politically aware or even old enough to vote, I perceived Wilson negatively. I didn’t even like looking at his pictures in history books. Now it’s generally accepted by both right and left that the president JFK held in such high regard and held up as a model for his party was indeed quite a racist. Many attribute that to Wilson’s need for the Southern Democrats’ vote, but it seems to me that if we accept sacrificing moral principles for political principles, we lose the concepts of honor and statesmanship.

What articles like the essay in Vox, admitting Wilson’s racism, don’t elaborate on, however, is that Wilson was as much into classism as he was racism. One popular website, Biography, makes note of this:

“Some of Wilson’s views on race first came to light during his time as university president. He had unfavorably written about eastern and southern Europeans as “men of the lowest class.”

As I read JFK’s speech delivered in Hemming Park on that day more than half a century ago, I remembered seeing my parents watch TV news, and how my mother admired JFK who came off as a champion of the working class. It struck me, though, how times change, and how, if he were to say some of the things today that he said then, he would not survive the political fallout.

It is a certainty that a speechwriter would most definitely strike through these words today:

“Thomas Jefferson founded the Democratic Party when he went on a botanical expedition up the Hudson River with James Madison, searching for butterflies, and they met people in New York and they formed the tie between the rural South and the industrial North, and that tie has been maintained to the present time.”

In his speech that day, despite the increasing relevance of civil rights in the United States, JFK mentioned freedom in the context of communist countries. Nothing was said about civil rights in the United States.

It seems to me that plaques like this one serve a good purpose. Had I not seen this, I wouldn’t have known JFK spoke here. I wouldn’t have been curious enough to delve into the history, and I think we should keep our history in mind always as we go forward into whatever future awaits us as a nation.

(Kay B. Day/Aug. 11, 2020)

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