01/20/2011 11:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Inauguration of the Young Sixties

Oh, Freedom!

"Freedom" was in the air -- the frigid air -- on that sunny early afternoon a half century ago today when John F. Kennedy uttered his most famous words. That enticing concept almost seemed to be tangible in the visible puffs of breath the new young president emitted into the cold.

"Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country.... Ask... what together we can do for the freedom of man."

Today there is not even a faint echo of those ringing words. They are the embalmed remains of a bygone time, a quaint era in which Americans could be moved by a call to put the common good ahead of self-interest, a time in which "freedom" wasn't just another word for having it all and losing as little of it as possible to the tax man.

Yet, different as the mood of America is now, John Kennedy remains the most popular president of the last half century. In a Gallup Poll released last month, 85 percent of respondents approved of JFK's handling of the presidency, 11 points ahead of second-place Ronald Reagan.

Surely the main reason that Kennedy is remembered so fondly is that he was assassinated at such a young age and that moment seemed in retrospect to be the point after which the great promise of the young sixties began to turn sour. But another important factor is that JFK is the last president anyone can remember asking with some success for citizens to sacrifice for the good of society. He is associated in the popular imagination with the expansion of freedom, but also with the linking of freedom to responsibility.

Barack Obama, who was in his mother's womb when President Kennedy was inaugurated, captured the importance of JFK to American thinking when he wrote in 1995 of"a spirit that would grip the nation for that fleeting period between Kennedy's election and the passage of the Voting Rights Act: the seeming triumph of universalism over parochialism and narrow-mindedness, a bright new world where differences of race or culture would instruct and amuse and perhaps even ennoble. A useful fiction . . . evoking as it does some lost Eden . . . ."

In truth, of course, the early sixties were neither an Eden nor what Jacqueline Kennedy would christen the time of her husband's presidency in the days after his death, Camelot. But the young sixties, which are inextricably bound together with the memory of Jack Kennedy and his stirring rhetoric, is a period worthy of more attention than it has received since it was overshadowed by the bitter divisions of the second half of the decade, the time that has generally come to be equated with "The Sixties." The hostile polarization that crystallized from 1965 onward continues to plague American society down to the present.

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January 20, 1961, marked the inauguration of more than a new administration. It heralded a new era revolving around that most American of words, "freedom." It was a time filled with an electrifying sense of possibility. There were dual power sources, at the opposite extremes of American society, from which that electricity was being generated: at the bottom, youthful black demonstrators in the South and, at the top, a youthful white president in Washington.

In the years when the sixties were young, everyone, it seemed, was talking about freedom. African Americans on the outside of the American mainstream were trying to get in to enjoy the "white freedom" of political, social, and economic access. Young whites on the inside were trying to get out of the stifling conventions of middle-class America to enjoy what they fancied to be "black freedom," the shorthand for which is "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll."

Kennedy's principal idea of freedom at the time he took office differed from both of those understandings of the word's meaning. Neither "Negroes" nor "civil rights" were anywhere to be found on the facets of JFK's rhetorical gem. He uttered the words "freedom," "free," and "liberty" ten times in the speech, but all of them concerned other nations, whose freedom, he pledged, the United States would help to preserve or to gain. Implicit was the belief that the United States was already the "land of the free," and therefore all struggles for freedom were foreign.

Yet, over the brief period of his presidency, JFK became firmly identified with the struggles for freedom within the United States that were to define the era.

"Freedom" is, of course, still a favorite word in the American political lexicon, but how different our times are from those of the young sixties. Then, the Four Freedoms that Franklin D. Roosevelt had identified twenty years before -- freedom of speech and religion; freedom from want and fear -- were still central to the political agenda. Today, many of those who shout the battle cry "Freedom!" the loudest seek a new, radically different four freedoms: Freedom from taxation and regulation, freedom to make people want and fear.

The young sixties are beginning to come out of the shadow of the decade's second half. The popular television series Mad Men, which takes place during those years of hope and transition, has helped to renew interest in that period.

The emergence of these years that began with the sit-ins in 1960 and were given a new impetus by President Kennedy's speech is likely to continue as the fiftieth anniversaries of the key events of the civil rights movement are observed over the next few years, beginning with a major celebration of the Freedom Rides here in Jackson this coming May.

This renewed attention to a time that has often been shortchanged as most people focus on the excesses of the later sixties is to be welcomed as we continue America's perpetual struggle with the definition of "freedom."

{Historian Robert S. McElvaine is Elizabeth Chisholm Professor of Arts & Letters at Millsaps College. He is currently completing a book manuscript, "Oh, Freedom!" - The Young Sixties.}