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Opinion | Eileen McNamara

JFK’s other civil rights legacy

After signing a bill on the care of children with mental disabilities, President Kennedy handed the signing pen to Eunice Kennedy Shriver.Cecil Stoughton/JFK Library

President John F. Kennedy was late for a meeting with the research scientists, special educators, doctors, and lawyers who had assembled in the Cabinet Room on a chilly October morning 55 years ago. McGeorge Bundy, his national security adviser, had delayed the president in the Oval Office, showing him fresh surveillance photographs that confirmed the presence of Soviet ballistic missile sites in Cuba.

The first of the 13 days we now know as the Cuban Missile Crisis coincided with delivery of a set of recommendations by a presidential task force on what would become one of the signature domestic accomplishments of the Kennedy administration. Less dramatic but no less historic than the showdown with the Soviet Union, that report launched an unprecedented federal commitment to people with intellectual disabilities.


When Kennedy was sworn in as president, most adults and children with such disabilities were warehoused in large Dickensian institutions, isolated from their families and the communities into which they had been born. All were denied the right to a seat in a public school classroom, a place on the playing field, and any opportunity for gainful employment. That began to change, slowly but irrevocably, after Kennedy accepted his task force’s call for Washington to aggressively address that inequality.

The 27-member task force had begun its work, only a year before it issued its report, under the relentless gaze of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who had won a commitment from her brother even before he took the oath of office to place what was then called mental retardation at the top of his legislative agenda. It was Eunice who urged the president to convene the presidential panel, Eunice who recruited its members, and Eunice who goaded them to complete their work within a year.

The Kennedys’ interest in this issue was personal as well as political. Rosemary, the oldest daughter of Joseph P. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, had been born with mild intellectual disabilities. She had lived at home and at boarding schools or with tutors until, at age 23, she underwent a prefrontal lobotomy, surgery that her father had hoped would relieve the mental illness that compounded her disabilities. It proved disastrous for Rosemary, who spent the remainder of her life in the care of the Sisters of Saint Francis at a private Catholic facility in Wisconsin.


For the decade before JFK’s election as president, activist parents had been leading efforts in the states and on Capitol Hill to win funding for special educators to teach their children and for support at home for parents who did not want to institutionalize their children. Their efforts yielded some progress, but real change did not arrive until Kennedy’s task force assessed the needs of this population and mapped a strategy to meet them. More than anything, the president’s efforts changed the national conversation. Those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, Kennedy said, “need no longer be alien to our affections or beyond the help of our communities.”

The report contained more than 90 recommendations, the most significant of which urged Congress to adopt new health initiatives for pregnant women and infants, to expand the anemic federal support for teacher training, to finance construction of university-affiliated facilities for research and others for the “diagnosis, treatment, training, and custodial care” in community settings.

Members of the task force recalled Kennedy’s somber demeanor in the Cabinet Room on Oct. 16, 1962. His laser-like focus on the report during their two-hour meeting betrayed no hint that a confrontation with the Soviet Union was about to unfold. A year later, on Oct. 31, 1963, when Kennedy signed legislation implementing their recommendations, the Cuban Missile Crisis was long behind him but tragedy lay ahead. The panel members back in the Cabinet Room to attend that ceremony could not have imagined it was the last bill Kennedy would sign. What they did envision was that life was about to change forever for the more than 5 million people in the United States who had, for the first time, gotten the attention of their federal government.


Eileen McNamara is director of the journalism program at Brandeis University and author of “Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World,” which will be published in April 2018. She will moderate a panel discussion, “JFK and Another Civil Rights Movement: People with Intellectual Disabilities,” on Monday at 5:30 p.m. at Brandeis.