On the fifty-fourth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, is there anything left to say? With the exception of Jesus Christ, surely no single man’s death has been the subject of more scrutiny, scholarship, and debate in the history of the world. And yet, the ongoing release of declassified documents related to the events of November 22, 1963 all but ensures the public obsession with the tragedy will continue for the foreseeable future, as armchair investigators continue searching for deeper truths that may or may not exist.
At times, Kennedy’s untimely death threatens to overshadow his undeniable achievements as a public figure and gifted orator. While his tragic passing infused each of his words with retrospective levity, the speeches for which he is often remembered soar on their own merit and reverberate to this day.
At first blush, the city of Houston does not feature prominently in the timeline of Kennedy’s truncated but remarkable public life—indeed, he only made three noteworthy visits to Space City during that period. But notably, each of these visits was marked by public statements that would prove to be historically meaningful. Even more impressive, each speech centered on a theme that was simultaneously nationally resonant and acutely specific to Houston, demonstrating Kennedy’s keen understanding of his listeners and their values.
A City of Tolerance
On September 12, 1960, presidential candidate Kennedy chose the Greater Houston Ministerial Association (GHMA) as the forum for his seminal speech on religion. As the largely Protestant electorate feared that a President Kennedy would be obligated to act at the direction of the Catholic Church and not his own conscience and the national interest, he decided to address the issue head-on. In unequivocal terms, he described the kind of America he believes in, one where “the separation of church and state is absolute” and where “religious intolerance will someday end.” Speaking directly to the Protestant ministers in the room, he reminded them that there was no religious test at the Alamo, and thus no one knows whether the heroes of Texas were Catholic or not. “I am not the Catholic candidate for president,” he assured them. “I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic.”
In tackling the thorny subject of his Catholicism, it was imperative that Kennedy address an audience that would be skeptical, but not overtly hostile. After all, that audience would serve as a conduit for Protestants across the country, and the national perception had to be that Kennedy was speaking to people capable of challenging their own preconceived notions, rather than unwavering ideologues who could not be swayed. If such a calculation was in fact made, then the question and answer session that followed the speech appears to have validated the decision, as ministers engaged the Senator in thoughtful and intellectually honest dialogue about their concerns, with some even commending him for his words. As a whole, the scene paints a picture of a much more open-minded Houston then one might expect to find in 1960 Texas. Fast-forward several decades, and Houston has indeed turned out to be one of the most diverse, and yes, tolerant, cities in the world.
The speech before the GHMA not only paved the way to the White House for Kennedy, it went on to become one of the most highly regarded speeches of all time, ranking ninth on a list of the top 100 speeches of the 20th Century compiled by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Texas A&M University.
A City of Progress
Exactly two years after his speech to the GHMA, Kennedy spoke before a crowd of 35,000 at Rice Stadium, passionately arguing his case for the goal of putting a man on the moon within the decade, despite the public perception that the Soviets were winning the Space Race. In his opening stanza, he referred to Houston as “a city noted for progress,” and in doing so, drew a direct line between his immediate audience and the primary theme that would punctuate the remainder of his speech. (This was not the first time he had equated Houston with “progress”—just the day prior, upon landing at Houston International Airport, he had characterized Houston as a “most progressive city,” one that “has been identified with progress in this state and country.”)
He then went on to condense the greatest achievements of mankind into a hypothetical fifty-year period to illustrate how rapidly civilization has progressed, fancifully noting, “only last week did we develop penicillin and television and nuclear power.” Putting history in these accelerated terms had the effect of making the impossible—putting a man on the moon—seem not only possible, but inevitable, the logical next step in man’s quest for progress. Citing Houston as an example, Kennedy reminded listeners that “[t]his country was conquered by those who move forward,” not those who “wait.”
The soaring first half of the speech gave way to a more grounded second half, in which he spoke in specific terms about the space program. The well-known culmination of the speech appeared at the intersection of the two parts, functioning more or less as a bridge:
But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, thirty-five years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon—we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intent to win, and the others, too.
The speech was written by speechwriter Ted Sorensen, but the reference to Rice playing Texas was added by Kennedy himself. While perhaps lost on much of the national audience, the wry wink to his host city is a classic example of Kennedy’s ability to address the nation while speaking to the man in the room.
A City of Growth
Kennedy’s final visit to Houston was no more than a few hours long. On November 21, 1963, he flew in from San Antonio to give two speeches before making his fateful journey to Fort Worth—one before the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) at the Rice Hotel, and the other as the keynote speaker at a fundraiser for Congressman Albert Thomas held at the Houston Coliseum. Lasting only seventeen minutes, the LULAC event is remembered less for anything Kennedy said and more for the fact that the First Lady addressed the audience in careful but confident Spanish to thunderous applause, followed by a mariachi band performance.
While the speech at the Houston Coliseum was mostly a tribute to Congressman Albert Thomas, the theme of “growth” broke through. “[Thomas] understands the meaning and importance of growth,” Kennedy said, “for he has served one of the fastest growing cities in the country.” He then highlighted Houston’s growth in population, shipping, and airline passengers under the leadership of Thomas. “And men such as Albert Thomas—men who recognize the value of growth and progress—have enabled this city and this state to rise with the tides of change instead of being swept aside.” He concluded by painting a picture of what American society would look like twenty-seven years in the future, illustrating the commitment to growth that would be required to meet the needs of future generations.
The speeches at the Rice Hotel and the Houston Coliseum would not go down in history for their rhetorical accomplishment, but rather for their timing—they were among the last public statements Kennedy would make. The dinner he enjoyed with his wife at the Rice Hotel prior to arriving at the LULAC event would turn out to be his last. Despite Kennedy’s concern that he would not be received as warmly in Houston as he had been in San Antonio, the city reportedly rolled out the red carpet for a man who unknowingly had only hours left to live.
While Houstonians will likely never feel the same historical connection to the legacy of Kennedy as his home state of Massachusetts or the city where he died, they would be remiss to forget that Houston was the backdrop to some of the most significant words he ever spoke. To address a nation weary of things it did not understand, he came to a city of tolerance. To challenge a nation to aim higher, he came to a city of progress. To encourage a nation to embrace change for the sake of future generations, he came to a city of growth. Three trips to Houston, three moments in history.