In John F. Kennedy's inaugural speech, whose freedom was he referring to, blacks or the poor?

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eacaraway eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Most people know John F. Kennedy's January 1961 inaugural address by its most famous line: "And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country." The beginning of the address, though, has an equally stirring line: "We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom--symbolizing an end as well as a beginning--signifying renewal as well as change."

The "freedom" line demonstrates a rhetorical device known as contrast, and there are many such contrasts in his speech. These devices serve to draw the listeners in and foster an emotional response.

JFK replaced Eisenhower in office. Eisenhower had supported a few laws that supported civil rights, but his support was limited. Although the economy was doing well under Eisenhower, 1 in 5 Americans was living in poverty at the end of the 1950s.

JFK is known for his commitment to the civil rights movement, but it is unlikely he was specifically referring to any particular group of people. JFK won the election against Richard Nixon by one of the smallest popular vote margins in history and his speech was meant to bring everyone together. It is more likely that the line is intended to refer to his presidency and all he stood for as celebrating freedom. Taken this way, it could refer to African Americans, those living in poverty, and other groups who felt disadvantaged during Eisenhower's administration.