It will be 50 years to the day on tomorrow, Friday, Nov. 22, since President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. JFK, as he was known in life and later in death, was supposedly gunned down by a lone assassin. A nation – and the world – mourned his death. Many have doubted government accounts of his death during the five decades since that awful afternoon in Texas.
To be sure, that dreary day in Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas became our national scar, a permanent blemish on whatever moral authority we felt entitled. Our president was murdered before our own eyes, and our First Lady scrambled to retrieve the part of his skull blown away. It was all caught on film, and has been indelibly etched in our collective psyches since.
The nation was never the same afterward. It never will be.
For people who lived through that day on Nov. 22, 1963, it cannot be. Time stood still.
It was sometime around 12:30 p.m. when Kennedy, riding in a motorcade in an open-topped vehicle, was shot in a burst of gunfire. His buoyant smile was forever erased, all within a split second. Admirers and well wishers alike watched in horror as the motorcade sped away, the young president slumped over his car seat.
In the most unforgettable recited news words in a generation, CBS News Anchor Walter Cronkite said to a paralyzed nation, “President Kennedy….died at 1 p.m., Central Standard Time.” The pause in Cronkite’s voice, the most reassuring voice for a generation who grew up hearing it, seemed like an eternity. It was.
And to think. We didn’t have the Internet back then.
With his death – and the subsequent swearing in of Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson as the nation’s 36th president – went the passing of a sense of hope and promise that confronted some of the most challenging times of Kennedy’s presidency. For a generation, there lingered a feeling we could never be quite the same after JFK’s assassination.
By all accounts, we haven’t been.
In President Kennedy’s absence, we became mired in the cesspool of the Vietnam War.
In President Kennedy’s absence, we became mired in the putrid and poisonous politics of anti-civil rights sentiment.
In President Kennedy’s absence, we became marooned aboard a rudderless ship, not trying to avoid the icebergs of racial unrest and Vietnam but almost inviting them into our world. Code words such as “law and order” meant to capture the anger in urban areas and “communist threat” used to appease the warmongers were clearly designed to arouse fear. The words worked.
Kennedy’s Civil Rights agenda was pushed through by Johnson but at great political expense. With the exception of two former southern governors – Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton – Republican presidential candidates carrying coded racial messages – Ronald Reagan opened his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were murdered – have easily carried the South since 1968. For some, hate was their haven and their hope.
Those who lived through the 1960s believe things would have been different had Kennedy not been killed. He seemed determined to break up what his predecessor, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, referred to as “the military industrial complex.”
His untimely death torpedoed any hope of that happening.
Fifty years ago, African-Americans were called colored and Negro, and lacked basic rights. Today, the terms black and African-American are used interchangeably, and the basic rights are there, as much as they are for all U.S. citizens. But so are the disparities: Income disparities, job opportunities, housing inequality, prison sentencing, prison populations, infant mortality, educational inequities, racial profiling and a myriad of other social ills. Kennedy’s morally compelling words often ring hollow when viewed in the context of what has happened since Nov. 22, 1963.
Kennedy, through the circumstances of time, was the one president who squarely faced resistance to civil rights. The resistance to Kennedy’s vision – and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy – had stern faces and stellar followers. George Wallace. Bull Connor. Lester Maddox. State Police in Alabama. The ku klux klan in Mississippi (hooded heads and hateful hearts).
Today, Barack Hussein Obama is the President of the United States of America. He is the nation’s first African-American president, the son of a Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas. He, too, has faced obstacles, many believe because he is black, although the president himself has never said that. Indeed, one could argue Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were held in even greater contempt. And they’re white.
We are not Jack Kennedy’s America but we’re not the one he inherited, either. After 50 years, we are, in many ways, still evolving, hopefully, for the better. Whites and blacks mingle in ways unimaginable a half century ago. But a new kind of warfare – class – could threaten all the gains made along racial lines. Cities across America face a new kind of challenge – gentrification and a diminishing working class – where poor and low income people, blacks and Latinos, are being pushed out of cities with higher cost-of-living prices in favor of a new urbanism. They are all but loathed by some their plight. New York’s recent mayor’s race all but said that.
For their part, today’s “younger generation” has no concept, no idea of what their parents and grandparents experienced on that awful afternoon in 1963. Their entire belief system, a belief system bolstered by Kennedy’s youth, his exuberance and, we have to say it, his looks, was shattered like a picture window crushed by rocks. For a generation that for once could say this was their chance, it was all unilaterally obliterated with an assassination.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy came from a wealthy background and donated his presidential salary to charity. But his greatest speeches and his lasting legacy highlight his understanding the need to bring all citizens – rich and poor, black and white – into the coliseum of community. Kennedy, as did his younger brothger Bobby, who would die the same violent way five years later, knew that Americans believed in their heart that a wealthy nation smothered with a poverty-driven underclass was not in the nation’s best longterm interest.
Let’s hope it doesn’t require another 50-year anniversary to figure out Jack Kennedy and his brother Bobby were correct in their assessments. And let us also hope this time, the lesson is not so evasive.
The Advertiser Democrat Editorial Board