“Kennedy’s idea is timeless. It is as vibrant today as it was half a century ago,” said Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams yesterday during the 50th anniversary celebration of then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy’s speech on the steps of the Michigan Union.
Fifty years ago, on Oct. 14, 1960, Kennedy gave a spontaneous speech at 2 a.m. More than 5,000 students crowded around the steps of the Union to hear the then-Senator talk about his idea for an international service organization.
Yesterday, about 800 University students, faculty, politicians, community members and past Peace Corps volunteers gathered in front of the Michigan Union to hear speakers commemorate the historic day.
The Ghanaian Fontomfrom Drum Ensemble kicked off the day of celebration yesterday morning. In his welcome speech, Paul Courant, Dean of Libraries, said the performance was fitting because the first class of Peace Corps volunteers traveled to Ghana.
University President Mary Sue Coleman followed Courant’s address and honored Al and Judith Guskin, two University alumni who listened to Kennedy’s speech as graduate students and later helped spearhead the formation of the Peace Corps.
In her speech on the Union steps, Coleman recalled the time she visited the White House as a finalist for a science competition and met Kennedy. It was the March after he established the Peace Corps, and she said she thanked him for his work.
“I could not have imagined that one day I would have the privilege to stand literally at the birthplace of the Peace Corps and thank the students and faculty whose enthusiasm made JFK’s vision such a powerful reality,” Coleman said.
In addition to commending the University community for its service, Coleman also talked about University alum Tom Hayden, a well known 1960s activist who covered Kennedy’s speech as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily.
“Some say I was the voice of my generation, but I say I was the Guskins’ mouth piece,” Hayden said in an interview after the event.
Hayden also spoke at the Hatcher Graduate Library last night in front of a crowd of about 200 people about his involvement in the creation of the Peace Corps, activism in the 1960s and the role of community service in today’s world.
During his time as editor of The Daily, Hayden printed a letter by the Guskins, in which the couple, inspired by Kennedy’s words, outlined their idea for the Peace Corps and asked readers to write in with their opinions. Hayden said he was surprised at the number of people who responded to the letter.
“It was one of those mysterious moments where people at the margins felt they mattered,” he said.
Later on during his time at the University, Hayden and a group of other students sent a series of questions about global policy to each presidential candidate in the 1960 election. One of the questions asked about the candidates’ positions on a “national youth corps serving in constructive peacetime activity abroad in place of military service.”
Kennedy’s questionnaire was hand-delivered by one of the students when the future president visited campus shortly before his 2 a.m. speech, according to Hayden.
The idea for the Peace Corps was formulated in an impromptu fashion, Hayden said, “not only from the grassroots with the students but a spontaneous act by a presidential candidate who was feeling something in the wind.”
Though he played a role in establishing the Peace Corps, Hayden said he felt a strong desire to stay in the United States to focus on improving social issues at home, instead of going abroad.
Hayden went on to be one of the founding members of Students for a Democratic Society and author of the Port Huron Statement. He was also a leader during the protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. Hayden later went on to become a California state senator.
In his speech, Hayden also discussed the current economic crisis in the context of community service. He suggested that service organizations today could function like the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and the Civil Works Administration during the Great Depression and create needed jobs. Expanding community service programs abroad, Hayden said, would also contribute to shedding a more positive light on the United States.
Hayden posed the question: “Ask yourself — would the Peace Corps make people hate us more, or would guerrilla attacks make people hate us more?”
Hayden also expressed his approval for the Obama Administration’s $215 million increase in funding for the Peace Corps, but he added that this figure is miniscule compared to how much the United States is spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which will drive the nation further into debt.
“I think the future of social activism in the United States rests very much with the Obama generation,” Hayden said.
During yesterday’s commemoration on the Union steps, Julia Darlow (D–Ann Arbor), chair of the University’s Board of Regents, also focused on activism by today’s young people.
“Fifty years ago JFK stood on these steps, and he asked for help and our students responded,” Darlow said. “We see that same dedication in today’s students, inspired and ready to meet that challenge made five decades ago.”
Kennedy’s first cousin Marnee DeVine also attended the celebration and talked about the moment she and her husband were a part of on the steps of the Union in 1960.
“I am thrilled that international service remains such a strong commitment on the part of Michigan’s faculty, staff and students 50 years later,” DeVine said.
Several speakers expressed their hope of continuing to expand the Peace Corps. Harris Wofford, former Democratic U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania and an architect of the Peace Corps, said it is time to get serious about growing international service.
“I’m perfectly ready to have the University of Michigan continue that leadership and show us how we can become inventive now to engage that power of American universities for the larger goals of the Peace Corps,” Wofford said.
After the event, Rackham graduate student Caroline Lai said she felt a personal connection to the speeches because she was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana.
“When you’re a volunteer it really means a lot when people tell you that you are making a difference, and you know that you are having an impact and doing what JFK had wanted us to do,” Lai said.
LSA senior Michael Kelmenson said he thinks University students have become complacent, but events like the Peace Corps anniversary celebration are bringing back the drive for activism.
“If the minority of students doing things like this becomes the majority I think it would do a lot of good for the world,” Kelmenson said.