The enduring legacy of Sargent Shriver

Thanks for the ‘heads up’ from Chris Hedrick (Senegal 1988-90)


by Steve Schmidt at The Warning
January 19, 2023


Photo by Rowland Scherman (PC/Staff 1961-63)


Martin Luther King lived a dangerous life. He was hunted and threatened because he believed in freedom, and like all true freedom fighters, he was a revolutionary. Like all revolutionaries, he was impatient for the completion of his work. He was the rarest type of revolutionary. King didn’t seek power, wealth, revenge, riches or land. He sought justice, and his weapon was love. Like all men, he was a sinner. Yet, within him was a singularity of wisdom that would topple mountains and carve valleys of hope like glaciers receding from their furthest reaches.

Politicians like Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy are cautious and incrementalist by nature. They understand that no victories can be won without first attaining power through an election. Both men feared weakening the country and setting back the cause of justice by moving too quickly and forcefully. They worried about backlash and instigating sympathies for the oppressors and racists who have always been expert at draping themselves in a false cloak of victimization. Frederick Douglass pushed Abraham Lincoln towards his unequaled place in the pantheon of America’s greatest leaders by refusing satisfaction with incrementalism around a cause that had no room for moral equivalence. Dr. King would articulate this instinct for immediacy and impatience towards incrementalism as the “fierce urgency of now.”

The president who would apply pragmatic principles in the 1960s to an urgent moral manner was John Kennedy. Like Lincoln, he would sit across from a man of electrifying brilliance who would demand that his people be treated as human beings made in the image of god — with no further delay. Like Lincoln, he faced a country that was boiling in turmoil and uneasiness.

The civil rights movement was well underway by 1960 when Richard Nixon and John Kennedy faced off in the first presidential election in which both candidates were born in the 20th century.

John Kennedy’s campaign was a family affair. His brother Bobby was the hard-nosed campaign manager with a reputation for incandescent smarts and political ruthlessness. Sargent Shriver was John, Robert and Ted Kennedy’s brother-in-law. He was teased within the family as a “boy scout.”

He was a believer and an idealist. His decency changed history with a single phone call.

Racism was alive and well in 1960 America, as it is in 2023 America, but progress was being made. The US military had been desegregated in 1947, along with Major League Baseball. Brown v. the Board of Education of 1954 had desegregated education. Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce it. Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, and the federal government ended segregation everywhere under its jurisdiction during that decade as well. The battle for justice in America was making headway, but the Deep South was resistant and defiant. The old Confederacy was making its last stand in defense of Jim Crow. It was under assault from a righteous young minister from Atlanta, who had come to topple it. Within a few short years  Dr. King would be a Nobel Laureate, famous the world over, but in October of 1960, he was sitting in a Georgia jail cell, while his wife Coretta was six months pregnant, and worried for his life.

His arrest made national news. The nation was waiting to see what the two men running for president might say.

Republicans have long sought to claim — without evidence — that Martin Luther King was a registered Republican voter. What was certainly true was that an 80-year- old black man in 1960, born in 1880, would have associated the party with its first presidents who were Lincoln, Grant and Garfield. The Democratic Party of that era was the party of the south. It was the party that imposed Jim Crow on the post- reconstruction South, and it was the party of Bull Connor, George Wallace, Lester Maddox and every segregationist.

The Democratic Party of 1960 had been out of the White House for eight years during the Eisenhower presidency, which institutionalized FDR’s New Deal, adopted his global vision and presided over the creation of the post-World War II American middle class. The party’s reactionary and isolationist elements hated Eisenhower, but he was too popular and too distinguished to be effectively attacked.

The Democratic Party was an uneasy coalition that included northern blacks, white liberals, labor and segregationist southerners under one banner. It was an unholy alliance that was nearing its last days when Dr. King was arrested on trumped up charges in Georgia.

John Kennedy’s brother-in-law knew that the right thing to do was also the politically smart thing to do, but he knew the inner workings of a presidential campaign in which principle can be a liability in the pursuit of power. He knew that many in the campaign, including Robert Kennedy, would be hesitant to take risks against ideals without knowing for certain what the outcome would be. Kenny O’Donnell was one of John Kennedy’s most trusted aides. When he served in the White House it was said that his great joy was being the first person in the Oval Office to tell the president of the United States that he was “full of shit” every day. Sargent Shriver waited until exactly the right moment to make his suggestion to Senator Kennedy. He waited until he was alone with “Jack,” and Kenny O’Donnell was out of the room. He suggested that Senator Kennedy place a telephone call to Mrs. Coretta Scott King.

President Kennedy did it. Richard Nixon did not, and in that moment, the bonds of affection between the party of Lincoln and black Americans were severed.

Sargent Shriver never held elected office in the United States. He was a World War II combat veteran and naval officer who was wounded at the battle of Guadalcanal. He went on to become the founder of Head Start, VISTA, Upward Bound, Job Corps and Foster Grandparents, among other organizations.

He founded and built the Peace Corps, and served as chairman of the Special Olympics, which was founded by his wife Eunice. He served as the American Ambassador to France, and was such a skilled diplomat that he was actually liked and praised by the French — which is no small feat. His life of service and the great wisdom accrued during it, including being the Democratic nominee for vice president with the World War II hero and South Dakota Senator George McGovern.

Sargent Shriver lived one of the most bountiful and productive lives of any American citizen who has ever been if the purpose of life is about service and love.

According to the conventional wisdom of 2023, Sargent Shriver wouldn’t be considered a reasonable presidential candidate because he isn’t an incumbent US senator, House member or governor.

The American presidency is a character test. When a president fails that test, it poisons all of American society by poisoning faith and belief in ourselves as a people.

Sargent Shriver would have been a great president, but his life’s journey did not take him to that destination. Instead, he became one of the most impactful Americans who ever lived. All around us are people who possess the qualities of character that defined the lives of Sargent and Eunice Shriver. Among them are their exceptional children, who have continued their extraordinary legacy of service.

The brokenness of American politics is not an indictment of the American character, but rather, evidence of a rusted machine. The evidence of America’s character can be found in the story of Sargent Shriver’s life and his enduring legacy.

Americans should think about injecting conviction, humanity, service, bravery, decency, compassion, courage and empathy into our politics by giving more people who have lived extraordinary lives a look when it comes to who it is that should lead us out of this abyss.

It makes sense to stop looking down and squinting at the smallness. Sometimes it makes sense to look up and out. That is where the legacy of Sargent Shriver can be found. He must be smiling somewhere looking down at Governor Wes Moore in his home state of Maryland. America is making progress. Even as it decays, it is reborn. The resiliency of America will save us because resilience is a character trait that is indomitable in this country of hard and tough people, who are as equally vulnerable and loving. There isn’t an absence of character in America. There is an absence of character evident in American life. Why? Because we have all become hostages to the dystopian looking glass created by the cynics and profiteers of division who created the political-access media-corporate economy. It is doing its best to strangle idealism by stoking extremism at the expense of America.

It’s time for something new. Isn’t it?


Who suggested to Kennedy that he call Coretta King in the middle of his presidential campaign?

Harris Wofford Made That Suggestion

It was Harris Wofford (One of the founders of the Peace Corps & Ethiopia’s first PC Director) who told Shriver that Kennedy should call Coretta Scott King and offer his support– And JFK did. Many think it was that phone call that changed the outcome of the election. Wofford, who had been working with King on civil rights movements in the late ’50s and early ’60s, was then with Shriver working on the presidential campaign to get JFK elected when King was arrested. Shriver, on Wofford’s suggested, went to Kennedy and got him to make the telephone call. The word spread quickly through the Black Community and that turned their vote to JFK! The rest is history.


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