[As this week marks the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, we are reprinting this essay, originally published November 2006 in issue #302 of PMjA.]
It was well after midnight on an unusually humid night in mid-October of 1960. An "impromptu" gathering of students began when word spread around the campus that a young presidential candidate was going to address the students late that night. Until then, presidential candidates rarely addressed students as they couldn't vote—so why waste the time? Four of us were playing bridge and heard the sound of the crowd gathering at the Michigan Union and decided to take a break in the game to see what was going on. We wandered over to the Union, which was probably 100 yards or so from where we were housed in South Quad (all students at the time were required to live in a dorm for the first year; I was housed with the freshman football squad on the seventh floor of South Quad even though I wasn't a jock). None of us knew who was speaking and I am not sure that was the point of our attendance. Essentially we came to be seen and to take the measure of a man who dared come to our lair to speak to us about his candidacy for the presidency.
The man was John Fitzgerald Kennedy—and he spoke not about politics per se, but about ideas and ideals. Notwithstanding his back problems (something we were not aware of at the time—in fact most of us weren't terribly sure who the hell JFK was), he bounded up the staircase in front of the Union, took the mic and started to address the gathering throng of students. By then his tie was askew and he was sweating (not perspiring). He spoke to the youth of our generation and how we had to (not should) make a difference. He spoke of how we needed to serve our country, but did not mention uniforms or foreign wars: We were to serve our county by helping others less fortunate than ourselves here, and by inference, working to eradicate poverty, ignorance, and enslavement all over the world.
While he gave this new project no name that night, this midnight speech later became recognized as the inception of an army for peace—the Peace Corps (an idea originally floated about two years earlier by the late Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey). I was eighteen and like many of my generation I was ripe with idealism—you might say I was young and dumb (which is distinguished by age from old and foolish). That night we skeptics and uninformed were swept up by this young eastern politician speaking of dreams he had for a country that had so much, and in his opinion gave so little. Into the night, thousands of students who had gathered to listen to this new voice for a new America argued about his stated goals for us. Regardless of their views, one thing was clear: this "impromptu" meeting was the spark that lit the fires that created a participatory youth in our generation. It gave us a song ("We Shall Overcome") and a purpose . . . and a little over a thousand days later, that voice that led us to where we had no intention of going was silenced in Dallas. That singular event was a coming of age that stunned my generation by delivering the other part of the message that JFK hadn't had time to deliver: Change wasn't going to be easy.
At that time, this man and that little idea delivered that late humid October night in 1960 sparked a generation to look beyond themselves to not only make a better America, but to make a better world. I am not sure we did a particularly good job of it, but at least we tried. Maybe yet another voice will be heard from another generation and maybe this time we Americans will keep the man as well as his spirit alive.
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