My last book was a biography of John F. Kennedy, Forty Ways to Look at JFK, and one of the chief reasons that I wanted to write that book was that I wanted to figure out for myself: what the heck was it about JFK? What was the secret of his charisma? When I started the book, I wasn’t a particular fan of JFK, so I wanted to understand what element in him so many other people responded to.
It was a joy to write that book and to think about that question — which is a whole other story. But as I got further and further into my research, I realized that one phrase that Kennedy used – which no one really talks about much – was the thing that struck me most. “Law alone cannot make men see right.” The election last night reminded me of this.
JFK spoke this line during a TV speech in 1963. In June, a pair of black students prepared to enroll at the University of Alabama. Governor George Wallace tried to block the court-ordered desegregation, but Kennedy federalized the state’s National Guard and forced Wallace to yield. After watching a replay of Wallace’s defiance, Kennedy announced, “I want to go on television tonight,” and he, Bobby Kennedy, and Ted Sorensen rushed to prepare his remarks in the few hours before he went on the air.
He spoke for eighteen minutes – much of it improvised from an unfinished text. You can watch the television footage and read the transcript here.
Here’s my favorite part:
This is not a sectional issue. Difficulties over segregation and discrimination exist in every city, in every State of the Union, producing in many cities a rising tide of discontent that threatens the public safety. Nor is this a partisan issue. In a time of domestic crisis men of good will and generosity should be able to unite regardless of party or politics. This is not even a legal or legislative issue alone. It is better to settle these matters in the courts than on the streets, and new laws are needed at every level, but law alone cannot make men see right. We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.
Law alone cannot make men see right. What does permit us to see right? I ask myself this question all the time.
Interested in starting your own Happiness Project? If you’d like to take a look at my Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.