THE BLOG
11/19/2013 10:59 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

JFK: Bawn in Boston

Over the past weekend, I have been watching memorials to JFK on a regular basis. Several of them suggest that JFK had put "race" on the back burner -- Cuba and the Cold War with its nuclear threat seemed far more important, according to the documentaries I saw.

I have a very different memory. I remember a grey October day in Harlem in 1960, when JFK, accompanied by Jackie, and introduced by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., spoke before a sizable black crowd, eloquently condemned racial inequality. I will never forget the magnificent tone and the Boston accent as Kennedy opened his address, standing tall on a hastily constructed platform outside the Hotel Theresa. Pointing south he exclaimed "A boy bawn there will live til 70." Turning and pointing north he said, "A boy bawn there will die before he is 60." Kennedy continued pointing south and north each time emphasizing the gulf between the races. As he continued, the crowd joined in, chanting its agreement with him. It was a deeply affecting moment. Unfortunately it was never seen on air. The moment occurred late in the afternoon, by the time I got back to the office my bosses said it was too late to be used that night (we still shipped stories to our stations by air planes). And, by the next day, it was yesterday's news.

There was at least one other line that never got on the air. Kennedy and Adam Clayton Powell were pals when they served in the house. Both of them had an eye for the ladies, and did little to hide it. As JFK and Jackie left the platform, Powell, sotto voce, but loud enough for the mic to pick it up, whispered "Mighty pretty white girl you got there, Jack." The crowd chuckled in approval. Powell had established that he and John, black and white, were equal, at least when it came to chasing ladies. It certainly didn't cost JFK any votes.

A couple of years ago, I called the JFK library to see if they had a text of the Hotel Theresa address. They did, but it did not include any of the words I have written above. The librarian said the "bawn here, bawn there" part of the speech sounded like something JFK would've said, and that JFK often ad-libbed or added to speeches that others had written for him. Ted Sorensen, who wrote many of JFK's speeches, had already died, so there was nobody else that I could check with.

The film we shot that day is long gone, United Press/Movietone News only kept stories that had actually been sent to clients in its library, and so all evidence of that October moment has disappeared. As a young reporter who is covering his first presidential race it seems horrific that such moments are lost forever. To me, "the boys bawn here; the boys bawn there" seem akin to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. They continue to ring out in my ears and they represent the best side of a great president, who did not live long enough to make sure that all boys created equal live equal lives.