As we move ahead with the campaigns for the next U.S. president, our dysfunctional country is on the razor’s edge. As violence seems to be a regular occurrence, some citizens are hostile to those they consider unworthy: Jews, African Americans, Latinix, Asian Americans, LGBTQIA+ and on and on. Anxiety, fear, depression, isolation are rampant.
Some of us realize that we are living in times that make their way into the texts and materials that high school and college students study and assess.
At times, hate escalates into violence, even murder, as it did on Nov. 22, 1963, when President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas, was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald.
Many consider the death of this president a tragedy, and JFK was ranked the eighth most effective president in 2021 by C-Span Presidential Historians.
Why? What words come to mind when JFK is considered? Cold War, Cuban Missile Crisis, Peace Corps, Apollo program, Civil Rights. PT Boat Commander in the Pacific in World War II.
How might American history have been changed had JFK lived to complete his first presidency and had he been elected for a second term? Pure speculation, of course.
Some of us remember seeing repeatedly the film of the assassination shot by Abraham Zapruder with an 8 mm home movie camera. And we observed in real time the wait at Parkland Memorial Hospital, Jackie’s bloody suit, the swearing in of LBJ, the funeral cortege, the salute from JFK Jr., and for those of us who have been at Arlington Cemetery, the eternal flame.
Vance Jacobs, a Texas native, writes, “On the eve of Nov. 21, 1963, I went to downtown Houston, and with a crowd of others, stood around in the street in front of the Rice Hotel where JFK was staying, hoping he would make an appearance. He did not.
“The next day on my lunch hour, I left the office where I was working and walked to my apartment and made a can of Campbell’s soup and was watching ‘As the World Turns’ when Cronkite interrupted and announced the news.
“I called my co-workers and told them, and they would not believe me. By the time I walked back to the office, everyone knew, and we spent the rest of the day glued to the news.
“A sad addendum: The right-wing hate was such that when the news was announced in a Dallas elementary school, the children cheered!!”
Carol Lynn Retallick Jones, living in Ohio at the time, remembers that day. She recalls, “I was at the church practicing the organ for the coming Sunday. As I was about ready to close up the organ, a woman came into the church and was praying. So, I stayed and kept quietly playing for a while.
“Later when I picked up my girls from a friend’s house, I heard what had happened. I was devastated as he was the first president that I had been old enough to vote for.”
Texan Steve Neihaus reveals his response to the assassination as if it were a dream sequence, “I was in a pep aud as we called pep rallies as a sophomore in high school. We were there honoring our football team which had ended the season third in the nation.
“We noticed our principal slowly walking to the microphone. It seemed strange because he rarely attended such events. He blew into the mike which got our attention, and the noise quickly fell away as he solemnly made the announcement that the President had been shot and we should go back to our classrooms and await further news.
“The halls immediately filled with the din of students questioning what would happen now, wondering who did it and why. And the Russians received a lot of blame.
“In our classrooms, we were quiet except for some whispers and some sobbing as tears fell. We had just taken an emotional rollercoaster ride.
“Finally, we received the news that the President had died, and we were sent home. There were no cell phones, so none of us had been able to talk with family members, and we moved pretty quickly and quietly out of the school doors.”
Californian Pete Maddox believes the U.S. changed in dramatic ways with the death of JFK and notes, “ I was in the lunch line and in the ninth grade when people started talking and crying, saying JFK had been assassinated. We were all told to return to our classrooms, and everyone seemed to be in shock.
“I was inspired by his inaugural speech and especially the challenge: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.’ When I heard that speech at age 14, I became a Kennedy Democrat, bound for politics.
“Had JFK not been assassinated, I believe I would not have gone to Vietnam, because he was in the process of ending America’s involvement in that war. And I believe the military-industrial complex that Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us about would not have grown into the global-dominating force it is today.
“That day remains one of the saddest moments in my life, followed by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. Like Dion sang in ‘Abraham, Martin and John,’ it seems ‘they die young.’ And so did our dreams.”
Kaye Forrester Sneed responds to the death with three words: “We loved JFK. I was in seventh grade in a small town in Mississippi.”
And Kentuckian Phyllis Bennett Tedders writes of her response, “I was in a 7th grade classroom when the principal announced his death on the intercom. I cried.”
Owen McCusker was in detention for acting up in art class as the news of the assassination was announced. He was in seventh grade and says, “Several other miscreants and I were assigned the task of using tin shears to open up old rubber cement cans to extract the remaining glue, so I was unavoidably high at the time. I recall, however, being upset.
“As I grew, I began to find JFK deficient as both a politician and a human being and believe that most of the heavy lifting to pass ’Great Society’ legislation was the work of LBJ, not JFK.”
Ohioan Jacqueline Thompson writes, “When the announcement came on the TV, I was in fourth grade. Silence followed. Kennedy was beloved, and we knew he was shot, and we learned about the gory details that followed. Mourning was inclusive in our Southeast Elementary School: even the little ones felt the sorrow.”
These responses of some of my friends will be recorded on the World Wide Web, giving them a permanence. Perhaps you need to record the responses of the elders in your family so that their sense of this day in American history will also have a permanence. And ask yourself the following: Have we become so inured to death and violence through the barrage of the media that we would today have different responses to the assassination of a U.S. president?
Vivian B. Blevins. Ph.D., teaches telecommunication employees from around the country and students at Edison State Community College and works with veterans. You may reach her at 937-778-3815 or [email protected].