Celebrating JFK's Peace Corps speech (with audio)

Oct 13, 2010

Fifty years ago today, people in Ann Arbor, Michigan were anticipating the arrival of then Senator John F. Kennedy. He was on the campaign trail in a tight race for the presidency with Richard Nixon.

He arrived on the campus of the University of Michigan in the early hours of October 14th, 1960. He was there to sleep, but he gave a short speech to the thousands of students gathered to see him. It was this speech that is credited for sparking the creation of the Peace Corps. There's a plaque at the Michigan Union marking the speech's place in history

The University of Michigan is commemorating the anniversary of this speech by holding events marking the speech (including an event scheduled at 2 a.m.- the same time he gave the speech).

Michigan Radio's Lester Graham produced an hour-long documentary on the creation of the Peace Corps.

Students at the University of Michigan put together a letter for Kennedy on Nixon. One of the things the letter called for was alternative service. The students gave Kennedy the letter prior to his speech that night and Kennedy said he was going to speak to one of their points.

In the documentary, Graham says Kennedy started with his usual stump speech, but then he unexpectedly asked the students a question. Here's a clip from the speech:

 

In the documentary, Bill Moyers, the first deputy director of the Peace Corps, says the speech came at the right time:

"You had a young idealistic President, who understood the world. And he made the speech that touched... who knows when the seed becomes a blossom that becomes a flower... and it happened that night. Not from the speech alone. Not because Kennedy was charismatic, but because there were gathered in front of him, as he spoke, some people who's hearts and souls and minds were the fertile ground on which that seed fell."

Since it's inception, the Peace Corps says nearly 200,000 people have served in countries around the world.