Half a century later, President Kennedy’s legacy lives on

JFK/ John F Kennedy/ President Kennedy/ Assassination anniversary/ Memorial service for President Kennedy

Half a century later, President Kennedy’s legacy lives on

Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 22 November

Photograph: Getty

Henry Hepburn

Everyone who was alive at the time knows exactly what they were doing when President John F Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, so it’s often said. And the passing of five decades has scarcely diminished the intrigue around his assassination and the life that preceded it.

Kennedy – known as JFK – fascinates for many reasons. He was president at a time of huge change, as the civil rights movement in America was gaining momentum and pop culture was exploding. Young, good-looking and with a glamorous wife, he seemed of his time – a break from the staid, starch-collared politicians of the past.

His short presidency was remarkably eventful and came at the height of the Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis saw the world teeter on the brink of nuclear war, while American fear of communism was entangling the US in the ultimately catastrophic Vietnam conflict.

Kennedy’s presidency produced several iconic moments: his seemingly naïve prediction that the US would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, which was achieved after his death, his “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” speech, and his birthday serenade by another 20th-century American icon who died too young, Marilyn Monroe.

His reputation as a president of hope, ambition and moral purpose is too simplistic. There was a ruthlessness and self-serving pragmatism to Kennedy – instilled by his father, Joseph Kennedy Snr – and he could be rash. The Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba was a disaster, his many affairs put his presidency and the Democratic Party at risk, and he stood back from the civil rights movement for much of his time in office.

The JFK myth endures, too, because he is only one character in a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. Brother Joe, seen as the family’s most likely president, died in World War II. Brother Bobby was assassinated in 1968. Sister Rose was lobotomised at the instruction of her father and left incapacitated. Sister Kathleen and son John died in plane crashes. Younger brother Teddy’s chances of the presidency were scuppered by the mysterious Chappaquiddick incident, in which a woman died when he drove his car off a bridge.

But it is JFK’s death that resonates across the ages – like Lincoln, he was a president cut down in his prime. Unlike Lincoln, JFK’s death was captured in searing colour film that gives a tantalising glimpse of the man that might have been.


1. What is assassination and how does it differ from other types of killing?
2. Why do we commemorate unpleasant events?
3. Why might the President of the United States of America be at risk of assassination?
4. Whose responsibility is it to prevent attacks like this in the future? Why?

Related resources

JFK's legacy

  • This lesson presentation explores some of the moral and ethical dilemmas surrounding the death of JFK, and includes photographs to discuss as a class.

Assassination and civil rights

  • Discuss the assassinations of John F Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Junior, and compare them to modern day acts of terrorism with this thought-provoking lesson.

Presidential power

  • Explore the power and responsibility of a US president, as well as their limitations and their relationship with the American political system as a whole.

Who won? Presidential quiz

  • Test your students’ knowledge and understanding of the US presidential elections with this quiz activity and short writing questions.

Further news resources

First News front page

  • Help your pupils understand the features of the front page of a newspaper.

Write all about it

  • Get students creating their own news report with this step-by-step guide.

What is the News?

  • A sociological and media perspective on what makes an event 'newsworthy'.

On the box

  • Help pupils to write their own TV news broadcast with this handy PowerPoint.

Structuring stories

  • A scheme of work to help students structure news stories.

In the news this week

“Selfie” has been declared the word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries after the frequency of its use rocketed by a reported 17,000 per cent over the past 12 months.

With ferocious winds of up to 200mph and hailstones the size of tennis balls, the tornadoes sweeping across the American Midwest sound like something out of a Hollywood thriller.

Students rally to typhoon relief effort as charities address destruction of schools

It might seem like something straight out of a science fiction film, but driverless cars – and even buses – are becoming very much a reality.

In the news archive index