(Published in the Gettysburg Times, 11/22/2013)
Fifty years ago today, Nov. 22, 1963, I was in Chemistry class, a Junior in high school, when we were called to assembly. We filled the bleachers, and our principal told us President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been killed.
That, we eventually would learn, was only the first of a series of assassinations of national figures.
At home, we almost never talked politics. Years later, I was told Mom did not like the Kennedys because they were illegally rich and pretentious – Grandfather “Honey Fitz” Kennedy had made the family wealth running rum during Prohibition. But what I remember was Mom favored JFK because he was only five months older than she, and the youngest ever to be running for President.
With his death, there was a general feeling of sadness in the community that someone would have the nerve to shoot the President of the United States. Camelot, the idyllic world envisioned in the Kennedys, was ended, its memory stored in the eternal flame under which we buried the late president. His killer had himself been killed, and Jackie went off to Greece to be caught by paparazzi skinny-dipping in the Mediterranean, and then marry a wealthy businessman. Then …
April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King was murdered as he stood outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn.
June 5, 1968: JFK’s brother Robert was shot as he celebrated his win in the California presidential primary.
A singer named Dion was first to note in song the assassinations of “Abraham (Lincoln), Martin (King) and John (Kennedy),” and ended the last verse by adding Robert Kennedy to the list.
May 16, 1972: the Washington Post reported, “A young assailant dressed in red, white and blue shot Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama yesterday …” Wallace, who had supported American apartheid as staunchly as the Kennedys and King had opposed it, was in his third campaign for the presidency. The bullets left him paralyzed.
I was in my second hitch in the Navy by then, a new father of two, and politics had not risen to as high a place in my life as it later gained. It was easy to think why King and the Kennedys had been killed, as they forged the efforts of Lincoln toward human equality. Not so clear was why Wallace was shot. It struck me that the “American way” seemed defined by killing anyone with whom we disagreed. I did not agree with Wallace, but I remember thinking killing him didn’t seem the way to change things.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was Catholic, and there were a large number of citizens certain he would become the Pope’s emissary to the U.S., replacing the Constitution with edicts from the Vatican. Some things change; some things not so much. In 2013, there are people who still believe, in spite of ample evidence to the contrary, the president is a foreigner, a Muslim whose main intent is to replace the Constitution, this time with the Koran.
On the other hand, we have made progress toward the Biblical exhortation to love each other as we love ourselves. In 1787, we defined a black person as three-fifths of a white. Nearly a century later, we slaughtered several hundred thousand of our brothers, husbands, and sons, and amended our Constitution to declare black and white equal – at least on paper.
We still didn’t let them vote, and we educated them in “separate but equal schools.”
Another century-and-a-half has passed and we have elected one of them president, and our young people seem mostly comfortable with other young people of different colors and religions.
I wish I could be around to see what further advance another 100 years will provide – but the outlook seems promising.