For some reason it has always stuck in my mind that November 22, 1963 was a Thursday, but I checked and the date fell on a Friday. But it started out as any normal school day did, although I don’t have any recollection of events before 1:30 or so in the afternoon. That was when my 7th grade teacher came in our classroom, with tears in her eyes.
“The President has been shot.” she told us. That was all that she, or most of the nation knew at the time. This was an era long before televisions were normal in public schools. The teachers were probably getting their information from a radio in the teacher’s lounge. We were a group of 12-year-olds who had never experienced anything like this in our lives. Some of us were excited, others were anxious. Nobody really knew how we were supposed to feel.
Because I knew that my parents were fervent opponents of JFK and his policies, I thought they would welcome the news. In fact, I even thought they would be happy if he died. Remember, I was only 12 years old at the time. By the time I got home from school, Walter Cronkite had confirmed the president’s death to the world. I didn’t see the broadcast live, but have viewed it numerous times in the ensuing years.
I also saw something I had never seen before in my life. My daddy was crying. Dad had gone through, as he termed it “the green hell of New Guinea fighting the yellow-bellied Japs” in World War II. He had grown up in lower Alabama, fatherless, during the Great Depression, and he never cried. EVER. That was when it struck me that this was something momentous, and it had nothing to do with politics. And, as I came to realize over the next few days, this event was the first time in my memory that the entire nation came together, as one, a nation in mourning.
We were transfixed by the pictures of the swearing-in ceremony of Lyndon Johnson, with a blood splattered Jacqueline Kennedy standing by his side. Yet it somehow seemed right and comforting that no tragedy, however great, would stop our country from maintaining our institutions and our traditions.
This sense of history was reinforced later by the solemn ceremony and the quiet dignity of Jacqueline Kennedy. My entire family sat together as we watched the funeral procession, the caisson carrying the President’s body, and the symbolic rider-less horse, with the boots reversed in the stirrups. These images have been imprinted on my mind for the past 54 years. I can’t remember if I actually saw John-John salute his father’s coffin as it passed by – that may be a detail added from news reports.
Over the ensuing half century since his assassination, the legacy of John F. Kennedy has been revised, and in some cases, tarnished. Yes, he did involve us in the Vietnam War, but had he lived, would he have taken it to the extremes that LBJ did? Would the Civil Rights Act of 1965 passed if he had not been killed? These are just a few of the questions we may never know the answer to. The legacy of Camelot that his widow tried to create has been diminished by his confirmed affairs with other women when he was President.
But on that clear November day in 1963, none of this mattered. And those of us who are old enough to remember that day are now dying off. So I think it is important share our memories, not just the news stories, the television footage, and the endless books written by historians, but the memories of ordinary Americans who lived through one of the most important days in our history. So that other Americans, coming after us, never forget this date or what it meant to our country.