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On a Friday afternoon, 50 years ago today, an American tragedy unfolded in the downtown streets of Dallas. The moment when an assassin’s bullet took the life of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and in so many ways changed the course of American history is not something anyone alive that day can forget.
In fact, it has become the most significant “I remember that day” anecdote that men and women have passed down through the generations, through oral histories, written memories or simply reliving the moment through media presentations.
It didn’t matter where you were – toiling in a field, studying in a classroom, serving your country, working at home or leading our citizens – you know exactly what you saw and felt that day. You likely can close your eyes and return to that place as surely as if it were last week.
Your TV programming was interrupted and then preempted. Newspaper headlines screamed the story in 2-inch-tall letters. Tears were shed. People huddled in quiet and concerned conversation.
Kennedy was hardly our most popular president – his battle to implement the Civil Rights movement left him a pariah and a political lightning rod that attracted the lethal attention of men such as his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald – but in his death he was to so many a heroic icon, almost a martyr to some.
On TV you watched as people wept openly, as many passed through the capitol to pay their final respects, as thousands lined the streets of Washington to watch the solemn passage of his funeral procession.
Since Nov. 22, 1963, his murder has been the focus of much public debate about the accuracy and validity of the Warren Commission, the Congressional panel assembled to determine who was responsible for this crime – Oswald, who two days after the shooting was gunned down by Jack Ruby, or a group of people, working in lockstep. There have been volumes published, documentaries produced, an award-winning movie and thousands of hours of simple debate.
No matter, it all returns to that day in Dallas, when a shot burst into the back of Kennedy’s skull as he rode in a limo convertible. He died, albeit unofficially, right there in his wife’s arms.
And perhaps it was because of that dramatic moment, something so inconceivable as to seem a product of fiction, that JFK became the legend that endures today. That his brother and would-be successor, Bobby, was assassinated 5 years later and that his partner in world-change, Martin Luther King, was, too, we as a society lost our innocence and created a new perspective that has continued to form our debate all these years later.
And that’s why we remember, that’s why we remember not only the thread of news but the fabric of the reactions we witnessed.
What we recall
Sue Carole Perry, for decades the Shelby County Clerk, recalls she was sitting in an auditorium for a program at Shelby County High School.
“I was sitting next to my home room teacher, Mrs. Howard,” Perry said. “Her husband didn't attend the assembly. When he heard the president had been shot, he came and whispered to Mrs. Howard. I didn't know what had happened, but I knew it was very bad because she was visibly upset. When we were back in our classroom, it was announced on the intercom. It was a very scary time. Many of the students were crying. It was such a sad time.”
A few miles west of SCHS, Jerry Miller, now a member of the Louisville Metro Council and a candidate for the state House, was going through a similar experience.
The editor’s column [“The day the world stopped,” Nov. 20] on the Kennedy assassination brought back a flood of memories, as I remember the same announcement over the intercom system,” he said. “I sadly recall that long ago Friday in Mrs. Hughes' second-floor classroom in the old Simpsonville school. Dorothy Hughes, who had been my teacher for the fifth and sixth grades, was the first teacher with whom I really connected, spurring me to learn for its own sake.
“She helped me build an academic foundation that, despite a few academic setbacks, served me well throughout life. She made sure we kept up with current events, but that did not prepare us for what was unfolding on that sunny day in Dallas.
“We were right in the middle of a lesson when our class was frozen by the impactful news of our young president's death. My dad had been a Nixon man, but we knew it was our duty to support America's president. I remember how a year prior, I was glued to the TV when he spoke to the nation about the Russians’ placing missiles in Cuba. Everyone seemed to love the young and dynamic leader who had faced down the old, fat, shoe-pounding Khrushchev.
“Now, we listened in disbelief as the intercom broadcast the developing story. It seemed like only minutes when the intercom announced that school was ending early. I rode the bus home with Mary Ellen Geiger, Alan and Howard Houchin, Riley Stucker and others on the Conner Station Road-to-Clark Station bus. I don't remember much about that ride, or anything else until returning home from church on Sunday to see Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald.
“For many of us who came of age in the sixties, the end of our innocence started on that sad Friday in 1963. I also remember where I was when learning of the deaths of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King – other innocence-crumbling events. Regardless, nothing is seared in my mind like the events of fifty years ago this week.”
A different perspective
Although you have to be of a certain age to have a true memory of that day, not everyone who shares a memory was a student or young worker. Sentinel-News columnist Ron Van Stockum, a retired brigadier general in the United States Marine Corps, was on active duty in 1963. He offers a differing perspective.
He was serving as director of the Marine Corps Reserve at Marine Corps Headquarters in Arlington, Va., within sight of the Pentagon, under the guidance of his friend Gen. David M. Shoup, a hard-bitten Commandant of the Marine Corps and winner of the Medal of Honor on bloody Tarawa in World War II.
This was the dawn of the Vietnam Era, and in retrospect, we look back and wonder how that might have changed if Kennedy had not died that day.
“Fifty years ago, on November 22nd, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated and Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency,” Van Stockum said. “Six weeks later, on December 31st, General Shoup’s term as Commandant ended, and he was replaced by Gen. Wallace Greene.
“Shoup had expressed his opinion that the United States should never become involved in a ground war in Southeast Asia. General Greene aggressively supported President Johnson’s policy of deeper involvement in Vietnam.
“One can only ponder how our involvement in Vietnam might have differed had Kennedy continued as president and had reappointed the outspoken Shoup, a favorite of his, as Marine Corps Commandant. Kennedy had earlier, in the Cuban Missile Crisis, which threatened nuclear war, thoroughly considered all of the options and, without backing down, had negotiated a diplomatic solution. Had he survived, would he have avoided the morass of Vietnam. We shall never know.”
Even today our students study a brief legacy of Kennedy. Few presidents get full analysis in middle- and high-school classrooms, but an historic anniversary such as today is an opportunity to expand that discussion.
Phil Bell, a social studies teacher at Collins High School, said he was planning today to use that full opportunity.
“In my classes I will do a lesson tomorrow [today] on the assassination,” Bell wrote in an E-mail. “The problem is that in our history classes we are still in earlier parts of history.
“In studying JFK the background on civil rights, cold war, the missile race and Cuba are so critical that talking a great deal at this time about his career as a congressman or status as a president is difficult.
“So, I will show some original video of the time, point out the effects of the coming of age of TV news, the impact on the public of the assassination, possible effects on later events, and try to dispel these idiotic conspiracy theories.”
In that paragraph perhaps we have the final summary. Today’s students will see the unfolding history in much the same way as the rest of us, during a class and with the video clips on TV, hearing the theories abound.
And, perhaps, they won’t forget either.
Sentinel-NewsReporter Todd Martin contributed to this report.