Classroom Activities

  1. Compare and contrast Kennedy’s Indianapolis and Cleveland speeches in relation to the goals, themes, arguments, and rhetorical appeals. Which speech do you believe better achieves his goals? Why?
  1. These two speeches are often joined together but they address very different audiences. Who were the audiences, and how did Kennedy adapt to them differently? Do you think it was appropriate for Kennedy to adapt to his audiences the way he did? Why or why not?
  1. In addition to reading the speech transcripts, watch the video of Kennedy’s Indianapolis speech and listen to the audio of his Cleveland speech. How does watching and/or listening to the speeches affect your perception of them?
  1. How do Kennedy’s speeches appeal to American values? In what ways does he call for a return to traditional American values? In what ways does he envision a new America?
  1. Kennedy says explicitly in his Cleveland speech that he won’t be offering a governmental policy proposal. Why do you think he said that? What role might the government play in solving the problem Kennedy identified? Does his lack of policy proposal undermine his argument? Why or why not?
  1. What does Kennedy mean by the “violence of institutions” (Cleveland, 7)? What role did that play in the “mindless menace” he discussed? Can you think of some examples of this kind of violence in contemporary society?
  1. Kennedy’s Indianapolis speech has been reenacted in numerous media, such as plays and movies (for example, in the 2002 movie RFK). What value, if any, is there to reenacting historic speeches? How important is it that such reenactments are historically accurate? What are the strengths and weaknesses of reenacting events rather than using historical footage?

Student Research

  1. Research Martin Luther King’s involvement in the civil rights movement and read some of his speeches and other public statements (such as his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, his “Mountaintop” speech, and his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”). Then write an essay that explains how well Kennedy honored King’s legacy in his remarks in Indianapolis and Cleveland, drawing evidence from both speakers.
  1. Some have argued that Kennedy’s speeches in Indianapolis and Cleveland marked a turning point in his campaign rhetoric. Read a few of Kennedy’s campaign speeches both before and after his Indianapolis and Cleveland speeches. How consistent are the themes across his speeches? In what ways are they similar and in what ways are they different?
  1. Research the context surrounding Kennedy’s decision to enter the 1968 presidential race, as discussed in biographies, newspapers, and magazines. To what degree was Kennedy an opportunist in entering the race, as some alleged at the time? To what extent do those accounts portray him as sincere and principled rather than opportunistic?
  1. Search the Public Papers of the Presidents at the American Presidency Project website for how presidents have discussed Kennedy in the years since his assassination. What qualities do they emphasize? Are they positive or negative? Has Kennedy’s reputation changed over time?
  1. Create a list of recent incidents of violence in the United States, as reported in the news. After you have created your list, reflect on the contexts in which those violent acts occured, and on how the violence was described or depicted. Is it criticized as unusual, or is it accepted as commonplace or normal? Then consider Kennedy’s statement that citizens at that time had come to “tolerate a rising level of violence” (Cleveland, 5). Do you think that is still true—or even truer—today?
  1. President Lyndon Johnson also delivered a brief speech the night of King’s assassination and a longer address the following day. Compare and contrast Johnson’s and Kennedy’s speeches.

Citizenship Resources

  1. There have been many domestic cases of violence in the past 25 years that have captured national attention (e.g. the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, mass shootings at Columbine High School, Virginia Tech University, and Sandy Hook Elementary School, and the Oklahoma City bombing). Choose one or two examples to consider how contemporary Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have spoken in response to these acts of violence. What do they ask of citizens? According to them, who or what is responsible for these various acts of violence, and what do they identify as the best ways to combat such violence?
  1. Kennedy’s speeches emphasized the need for black and white America to work together and find understanding. Almost 50 years later, how, if at all, has the conversation about race changed? How has it remained the same?
  1. In recent years, there has been increasing public attention to the connection between race and violence. Imagine you are asked to write a speech about these topics for the president or a presidential candidate. What would you say to address this problem? Are there national policies you would propose?
  1. Kennedy blamed society and the individuals within it for the violence that plagued the nation. What do you think governments, educational and civic organizations, and individuals might do to combat the violence that still plagues our country?
  1. Other countries have instituted different gun laws than the United States. Research gun laws in the United States and other countries (perhaps start with this Council on Foreign Relations study of gun laws around the world, linked here) and consider whether or not you would advocate a different approach.