Marshall Ganz on John F. Kennedy's Legacy and Social Movements

April 25, 2011
by Molly Lanzarotta

As part of the JFK50 commemoration, HKS lecturer Marshall Ganz reflects on JFK's legacy in the realm of social movements, and Robert Kennedy's role in carrying on that vision while creating his own legacy.

Q. As an undergraduate at Harvard, you became involved in the civil rights movement the year after JFK died. What influence did JFK’s life and leadership have on your own path?

Ganz:Well, it was profound. When I came to Harvard as a freshman, in 1960, it was on the eve of Kennedy’s election, and I remember being at Harkness Commons at the Law School watching the election results come in. When you’re from a small town like Bakersfield, California, as I am, coming to Harvard is sort of this combination of exhilarating and utterly scary. But that night, and that election – it was a powerfully inspirational moment. Not long after, Kennedy came on a visit to the Harvard Yard and the rhetoric – a new generation of leadership – was something that many of us experienced directly, like he was talking about us. You felt like you were at the center of a place where an extraordinary change was about to happen, and you were part of it.

I spent two years at Harvard and then took a year off. I came back in 1963 and it was right after the march on Washington – change was in the air. The Civil Rights movement was making its claims and I was very drawn to it. But of course like so many people I remember standing in line at the Harvard Trust to get some cash for the weekend and someone came screaming down the street saying “they killed him, they killed him” – and that of course was the assassination. I found my way to Peter and Paul church and sat there for a while, like a lot of other people. And then some of my roommates at I spent the next three days in the basement of Winthrop House watching all of this unfold on television and trying to make sense of what in the world had just happened. It really shook our generation.

I think that, in an odd way, his loss challenged many of us. Somebody else wasn’t going to do it for us – we had to do it. It wasn’t going to come from on high if these changes we aspired to were going to happen. It turned out that even those on high were vulnerable. And so we had to step up. I think in that way JFK’s loss had a real influence in my decision to become much more involved in the Civil Rights movement, volunteer with the summer project, go to Mississippi – that changed my life.

Those were profound moments of both hope and challenge and I think it’s that combination of hope and challenge that galvanizes us into action.

Q. In talking about organizing, you’ve said that it’s necessary to build a foundation in shared values that trumps self-interest in order to bring about change. Did John F. Kennedy play a role in building such a foundation during his presidency?
Ganz:It’s a really interesting question, because I think, again, it’s this combination of hope and challenge that’s really critical. It’s important to understand that change requires the creation of tension. Because it’s only tension with the present that can create the motivation to move to a different future. So there’s a dimension of tension and conflict that is inherent in leadership that aspires to change. I think that Kennedy didn’t shrink from that. I remember when he took on the steel companies – that made a big impression on me because here was the President, challenging a major source of corporate power in our country, and saying “look, you’ve got to step up.”

So the significance of shared values is that it takes a lot of courage to engage in the work of change. A community that aspires to change has to find sources of that courage in their values, in the things they deeply care about, their sources of hope and faith.

I think this is a very interesting question because in some ways, the way that President Kennedy reinterpreted core American values as being about change and community and aspiration toward equality – which he did articulate very strongly – lifted up that set of values, which were being challenged by other values. So in a way the sort of moral content of his presidency legitimated the moral content of the movements that were striving to transform the vision that he articulated into reality. Because we all know, there was a lot of tension between the civil rights movement and President Kennedy and his brother Robert, as well. There was a lot of tension back and forth. The fact that this tension played out not only in a narrowly political context but in a broader moral context I think gave people sources of courage to fight the fights that had to be fought.

Change always requires risk, it always requires uncertainty. Self interest isn’t enough to motivate us to take the risks required to make change that’s why the values content or the moral content of aspiration to change is so important. It’s where we go to get the courage to act. I think Kennedy modeled that.

Q. You were directly involved in many of the social movements of the 60s – how did JFK’s presidency influence these movements at the beginning of the decade?

Ganz:Again, it’s this hope and challenge. On the one hand, the President articulated a vision that was profoundly inspirational, but then when it came to translating that vision into reality, there was a conflict there. There was a difference between looking at a White House from which there could be no response and we have certainly gone through those periods of our history to a place where there ought to be a response, but it wasn’t forthcoming, and that then inspired people to make claims upon it. But in making those claims upon the President, it was uncomfortable. We all know that in 1963, the administration didn’t want the March on Washington; they didn’t want to feel that pressure; they didn’t want to be put under that constraint; they didn’t want to face the costs of change. On the other hand, Kennedy had helped create the conditions that inspired it. So it was a very dynamic kind of tension. And, of course right after the March on Washington which was pulled off despite the administration’s wish not to have it happen it went to a whole other level of negotiations with the administration.

I think that the President and his brother understood that change is a messy, conflictual process and that it isn’t all a matter of getting everyone in a room and getting them to agree, but getting in there and fighting the fight. And if people are putting pressure on you to do the right thing, sometimes that’s something to be grateful for, even as it is uncomfortable and unpleasant. And I think that was an understanding that that leadership had that has often been lacking in our national leadership.

Q. You were involved in Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Tell us how you experienced RFK’s role in carrying on JFK’s vision while creating his own impact and legacy.
Ganz:That whole journey was just extraordinary. We all know that Robert Kennedy started out as an assistant counsel in [Senator] Joe McCarthy’s hearings. This was not an auspicious beginning for someone who would exercise the kind of moral leadership that he came to exercise later on. One of the deepest, most important lessons that I took from his career and life was the capacity for learning, the fact that suffering can produce learning, growth.

When Robert Kennedy was called to deliver the news of Dr. King’s assassination on April 4, 1968 to a black audience in Indianapolis, he drew on Aeschylus to describe what he called “the wisdom that comes through pain through the awful grace of God.” It was autobiographical. I think the audience knew that. His experience of ascent and descent, of gain and loss, and having to come to terms with loss so profound and so visible and so public, gave him a kind of wisdom that set him apart in the political leadership of the time.

I first met him when he came to Delano [California] when I was working with the farm workers in 1966 to hold hearings on migrant labor, and after that he became an ally of ours. There was this connection between the farm workers and Senator Kennedy. Now you couldn’t imagine people growing up in more different settings – although the fact that he was Catholic and had eight kids, the farm workers kind of liked that. But there was something about the recognition of each other’s pain, and the recognition that you can’t let pain stop you from living – that you have to learn from it and move on, and find sources of redemption – that I think was really at the core of that empathy that communities like the farm worker community, the African-American community, other people who were left out, white working people, were able to make that connection. As such, he was an extraordinarily significant political figure at that moment.

When he announced his candidacy, he had just been to Delano and joined Cesar Chavez for the breaking of a 25-day fast for non-violence, and we all went to work for his campaign. My job was to take a group of farm workers to Los Angeles to do the get-out-the-vote for the primary. I had never seen the Latino community turn out like that. We had East Los Angeles precincts in a primary election voting 80, 90 percent.

We all went down to the [Ambassador] hotel that night to celebrate the victory, and we were in the room where Robert Kennedy was giving his talk and a colleague and I had the job of conducting him to thank the farm workers who were waiting in another room. The [senator’s] group went off through the kitchen rather than through the fire escape, which we thought was going to happen. We jumped up on the stage and then all of a sudden the crowd froze and the screaming began and it felt like history was just slipping through our fingers like sand.

That moment was I think one of the most critical turning points in the 20th century, in the history of our country, because had he survived and had he become President I think he had a unique capacity to advance the civil rights cause into a broader cause of equality. It instead turned into law and order – criminalization of the civil rights movement – and set us on a path that gotten us to the place we were before [Barack] Obama was elected president. So it was a big moment. We couldn’t leave the hotel until 4 in the morning. I joined Caesar who was up all night watching on television, and then we headed back to Delano and had our memorial service. And then we continued the struggle because that’s sort of what that’s all about, trying ourselves to learn from the pain of loss which he had modeled in his life.

Q. In what ways do you see the Kennedy legacy as still being alive and relevant today?
Ganz:Well, some of us are still walking around – I think we owe something of who we’ve become and the pathways we’ve pursued in our lives to that whole experience of leadership in that time from both President Kennedy and Senator Kennedy – and Ted Kennedy, for that matter. I guess the legacy remains alive, certainly to the extent that those of us whose lives were shaped by it remain active in trying to change things, and are called to share that legacy with others, especially our students.

There is a passage I love from the Gospel According to St. Matthew in which Jesus says to his followers, “If I’m to set you as sheep among wolves, then you must be innocent as doves and wise as serpents.” The Kennedy leadership, in particular Robert Kennedy, combined the sort of innocence of doves, meaning the depth of moral commitment with the wisdom of serpents, which is the clarity about how the world actually works and the kind of struggles it takes to change it. And it’s that combination of values commitment and strategic understanding of dove-like innocence and serpent-like wisdom that it takes to offer leadership. And I think having those models, having those examples, is very great. But I think it’s an example to which we have to aspire and have to struggle to live up to.

Visit the JFK50 webpage for videos, photos and more on the 50th anniversary of JFK's inauguration.

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