It seems easier to accept that it has been a half century since JFK was murdered than that most people now alive were then yet to be born. The enormity and impact of that event were so unprecedented that one feels everyone should somehow be able to remember where they were when those terrible shots were fired.
Like everyone who was old enough to grasp the fact of the young president’s assassination, I remember where I was when the news began to spread. Just turned 10, I was sitting in my second floor classroom at the Hay School, a one class per grade elementary school in Easton, Pennsylvania. There was a knock at the door, whispering, and then more quiet voices as the teachers congregated, shocked and no doubt fearful, in the hallway.
They stayed there for quite a while, leaving us to work at our desks on whatever we had been doing before. Eventually, we began to wonder what was going on, especially when we noticed through the window that all of the children in the parochial school across the alley had fallen on their knees to pray. Soon, their classrooms emptied, and the lights were turned off while we continued to sit at our desks, straining to hear what might be said outside our door.
After so many years, I don’t remember what happened next. I don’t believe we were told what had happened; I think we were simply sent home to learn the news in whatever way our parents chose to share it. The next day was a Saturday, and now-President Johnson announced that Monday would be a day of national mourning, and hence no school would be held. I remember sitting for most of the next several days in the small rec room in the basement of our house, assembling a plastic ship model and watching hour after hour of news on our black and white TV as the long dirge of coverage followed the return of the body to Washington; the solitary casket lying in repose in the East Room of the White House on Saturday, and then on public display on Sunday under the Rotunda of the Capitol, kept company by the endless line of mourners, hundreds of thousands of them, huddled outside in the light rain waiting for their chance to say goodbye.
What I remember most vividly is the coverage of the funeral, the most visually dramatic and emotionally compelling part for a ten year old boy to witness out of what seemed like an endless train of ceremony. But in fact, it was only four days from the moment that Oswald’s rifle barked in Dealey Plaza to the time that the heartbroken attendees slowly dispersed from Arlington Cemetery. The symbolism of that state funeral was so striking, without ever being maudlin – the flag-draped casket on the caisson pulled by horses; the spirited, riderless black stallion, boots turned backwards in the stirrups, prancing impatiently and reined to the slowly moving casket from behind; the young widow dressed in wordless, dignified mourning standing wide-eyed by the graveside; the young bugler, desperate to rise to the occasion, but nonetheless unable, like so many broadcasters, to finish the job without falling to the undeniability of his own emotions.
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Even to adults, it seemed like nothing so terrible could ever happen again. But sadly remembering where you were when awful things occurred became part of what you came to expect out of life. Hearing the news of Bobbie Kennedy’s assassination as I dressed for school and running downstairs to watch a visibly shaken Walter Conkrite, still at his desk after a long night, recounting the unfolding story. Sitting in a London hotel while we met my father on his way home from Viet Nam, hearing that the Rev. Martin Luther King had also been taken in the prime of life.
Political and racial assassinations became just another one of those facts of life that today would be hard to imagine, like the threat of annihilation at any moment from nuclear war, or the wrenching experience of the War in Viet Nam, or the racial strife that threatened to tear apart the country itself as the fault line of hundreds of years oppression finally and catastrophically shifted. These events, and more, left equally unforgettable images imprinted forever in the minds of those that lived through those days. I vividly remember that for days after the murder of Dr. King that the first six pages of every paper in England were filled with stories and pictures of the riots that erupted and the literal conflagrations that raged in scores of cities and towns across America.
Looking back today is difficult for those of us that remember, but perhaps it is only a matter of historical interest to those that do not. After all, in 9/11 they have had their own experience with an event of monumental horror devoid of meaning. And perhaps worse, they have seen what can happen when a youthful, idealistic, inspirational leader survives into a stalemated second term instead of being cut down in his prime, before it could be determined whether he would live up to the hopes that he inspired.
Events like these invite cynicism and tempt us to give up hope. But another look backward should evoke the opposite reaction. When John Kennedy was taken from us, the Cold War still raged throughout proxy states around the world. The Soviet Socialist Republics and all of Eastern Europe were yet controlled by the Kremlin, leaving hundreds of millions of people with few freedoms and fewer comforts of life. Most of South America was in the thrall of dictatorships, or soon to fall to military coups. South Africa remained locked down by the forces of Apartheid, while segregation ruled throughout much of our own country and lack of equal opportunity prevailed throughout the rest. In Asia, the Chinese people, still struggling from the impact of the Great Leap Forward would soon endure the disasters of the Cultural Revolution. And millions would soon die, be wounded or displaced in Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos. It would have been easy to conclude that things could only go from bad to worse, especially on the dark day in Dallas.
But somehow, despite all of the failures of leadership and national will that year after year are rightly called out in the news, all of the injustices and suffering noted above, together oppressing the majority of humanity, have been wholly or partially resolved. Countries that could not be visited when I was in college are tourist destinations today, and trials for war crimes are held at the Hague. Billions of people have a quality of life now that they could not have imagined then, even though as many more remain to be saved.
In no small part, that so much has changed for the better is the result of a generation’s decision to carry the torch that JFK had lit, rather than to sink into despair or lapse back into complacency in the face of injustice and suffering. Kennedy’s words still inspire, just as his Peace Corps endures, just as the words and example of Dr. King continue to stir the hearts of those born decades after his death. Just as images of Bobbie Kennedy help us recall that it is better to surrender to hope then it is to give in to despair, or hang back with doubts.
It would be tempting to close with a statement that there has never been a time as urgent as now to remember what these inspirational leaders called on us to do, and to rise to their challenges. But the truth is that it has always been as urgent, and always will be, because there will always be so many whose ears are deaf to their call.
Perhaps the best way we can honor the memory of John F. Kennedy today would be to demand that all members of Congress forswear their partisan wrangling and embrace what a prior generation learned from JFK: that the concept of public service pledges elected representatives to work for the benefit of all Americans, and not just those of their own political stripe, and that voting one’s conscience is a higher calling than voting to ensure one’s own reelection.
But as citizens with a vote, we are of course equally to blame. If so many peoples around the world have been able to throw off the yoke of oppression since the 1960s, how can it be that we, with no meangful barriers between the present and a better life for all Americans, can fall so short?
On this 50th anniversary of John Kennedy’s death, all of us should remember the words, and rise to the challenges that John Kennedy posed to Americans during his brief tenure in office. To decline to do so would be to betray not only his memory and our children, but ourselves and our own future as well.