The rights of every man: Timeless lessons in Kennedy speech on civil rights
TAMPA, Fla. - 57 years ago, the United States faced a similar moment.
Demonstrators were demanding racial justice across the deep South.
Government troops were sent to Alabama in an attempt to quell racial discord and allow two African American students to enroll in college.
The next day, June 11, 1963, President John Kennedy gave a speech that laid out his vision for a just America.
"The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened," the president said.
In his day, protestors were demanding the right to vote, the right to attend school, the right to eat in a restaurant.
Today, they're demanding police officers be punished when unarmed black people are killed, but Kennedy may as well have been talking about both.
"The fires of frustration and discord are burning in every city, north and south," the president said. "Where legal remedies are not at hand, redress is sought in the streets, in demonstrations, parades and protests, which create tension and threaten violence."
Monmouth University professor Dr. Walter Greason points out, Kennedy made that speech after seeing news clips of chaotic demonstrations.
Today, social media amplifies home videos, not just of men dying in police custody, but of disputes over places of public accommodation; a bird watcher in New York, or people working out in a gym.
"It ought to be possible for American consumers, of any color, to receive equal service," Kennedy said then. "Without being forced to resort to demonstrations in the street."
Greason sees the parallels between how media of each era are setting the agenda.
"These moments started to break through and say, 'Hold up, hold up. This does not hold up, conform, with what we believed had happened, that we had come to a place of equal justice,'" Greason explained.
In his speech, Kennedy lays out statistics showing the differences between whites and blacks -- education, life expectancy, salaries, unemployment.
Today some statistics are closer, like high school graduation rates which have a 10 point gap between whites and blacks.
Wealth is where the big difference lies today. The Brookings institution says the average white family today is worth about $170,000.
The average black family is worth $17,000.
"If, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed?" Kennedy asked.
Greason argues progress has been blocked politically and economically.
"Not understanding the people who fought against Dr. King's vision, or fought against Kennedy's principles of equity for all, we have wiped awareness of that coalition out of our mind."
President Kennedy -- who is remembered at the University of Tampa with a statue -- used his speech to urge Congress to act. In the case of today's marches, the focus is on the justice system. But he argues solutions had to come from everyone.
"In a time of domestic crisis men of goodwill and generosity should be able to unite regardless of party or politics."
Maybe the most tragic of all is that Kennedy scholar Larry Sabato says the man who gave this speech might not be surprised it is relevant 57 years later.
"I don't think he expected a quick resolution to these deeply held prejudices that had been part of America since Jamestown," said Sabato.
Some might wonder if it will still be relevant in another 57 years.