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John F. Kennedy’s Legacy In San Diego


Michael Parrish, UC San Diego Professor of History


JFK Speaks at SDSU

On June 6, 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivered San Diego State College's commencement address before approximately 30,000 people at the Aztec Bowl.


Seth Mallios, chair of the San Diego State anthropology department and the university historian.


This week the nation and the world will mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. Retrospectives on the assassination of President John F Kennedy are all over the airwaves this week. The grainy footage from 1963 shows us over and over again, the President's motorcade, the shots and the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald. But what it doesn't show is how that one act affected the lives of millions of individuals and, as some claim, changed the destiny of America.

When John F. Kennedy visited San Diego in June, 1963, about 250,000 San Diegans lined roadways and attended events to get a glimpse of him. San Diego State is commemorating his transformative visit to the school's campus in June 1963, just five months before his assassination.

“I have the honor to confer upon you, President John F. Kennedy, the honorary degree of doctor of laws."

With those words California State College’s second chancellor Glenn Dumke did more than honor Kennedy.

By granting an honorary doctorate, the university also gained the power to grant real doctorates, said Seth Mallios, chair of the San Diego State anthropology department and the university historian. The university had unsuccessfully been trying to gain that power by finding a partner university for several years, he said.

“When you think about San Diego State’s reputation now — the small research university awards, the emphasis on research — all that starts with JFK,” Mallios said.

Kennedy opened his remarks by applauding California’s recent completion of the Cal State system, which had added it's final six campuses in in the previous six years. He highlighted the state's relatively high school spending.

“One of the most impressive if not the most impressive accomplishments of this great Golden State has been the recognition by the citizens of this state of the importance of education as the basis for the maintenance of an effective free society,” Kennedy said.

Then he outlined the transformations he envisioned for the country. He called for an end to de facto school segregation, for higher high school graduation rates and for students to be prepared for technology jobs of the future.

It was a momentous event for the university during a significant political time. The Cuban Missile Crisis had happened months earlier and a week after delivering his speech at SDSU, Kennedy would introduce his hallmark civil rights legislation, and a federal court would order the University of Alabama to integrate.

Mallios thinks Kennedy's messages will still be powerful in today's context, too — after several years of tuition increases and state funding cuts to every education at every level.

“The two things that strike you is that, wow, some of those issues are still very relevant and the second is that California is no longer leading the way,” he said.

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