John F. Kennedy addresses the nation on Civil Rights in June 1963. (National Park Service)
Last Modified: Thursday, November 21, 2013 8:10 PM
Today marks the 50th anniversary of one of this nation’s darkest days, the assassination of its 35th president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
The murder of the most powerful man in the world shook America marrow-deep. It was the stuff that happens in a Third World banana republic, not on a downtown street in Dallas.
One moment, the president, his wife and entourage wave to the adoring crowd. And then the dark blue limousine makes a hard left turn onto Elm Street and in a matter of seconds JFK belongs to history.
The tragedy, to this day, remains incomprehensible to many. Here was a young, vibrant president — the youngest man to ever be elected to the office — a stark contrast to his three predecessors, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
On a snowy day less than three years before, Kennedy alluded to the fact, saying in his inaugural address that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.”
That speech also contained this gem: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
And finally, this challenge that should ring true through every breath of this nation’s existence: “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
Men and women now in their mid-50s and beyond remember where they were a half-century ago today when they heard the news, much like the generation before had etched in its memory the first reports of the surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941, that marked this country’s entry into World War II. They still struggle with the message and messenger that was silenced in Dallas that day.
Through the years, the Kennedy mystique has mushroomed. His administration, like all before and after, had its missteps. The biggest fiasco may have been the ill-conceived and -executed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba to topple Fidel Castro.
However, the accomplishments far overshadowed those mistakes. It was JFK who first proposed sending a man to the moon and returning him safely before the end of the ’60s, a mission that came to fruition.
Kennedy negotiated a peaceful solution to the showdown with the Soviet Union over nuclear missiles in Cuba, easing the world back from the brink of a devastating atomic-bomb-laced war.
And it was Kennedy who used the might of the federal government to force the integration of public universities in Alabama and Mississippi.
It was that integration push that made JFK and his brother, Bobby, loathed in pockets of this country. On that fateful November day, when his death was announced over the public address system in a Lake Charles elementary school, some students cheered. A sales clerk in a local store, when apprised of JFK’s death, said Bobby Kennedy should be the next victim.
The assassination itself has been steeped in controversy from the very moment shots were fired. It fostered an industry of assassination buffs with way too many theories and plots to count.
Even though the event was chronicled by an amateur movie photographer, Abraham Zapruder, no one can say with 100 percent authority exactly what happened that day. And no more than hours after the report of the assassination’s official investigation — by the Warren Commission — did Americans begin seriously questioning for the first time the federal government’s integrity.
What would follow would be turbulent times: the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, a presidential hopeful in 1968, the Vietnam War and its antiwar protests, race riots in many large U.S. cities and Watergate, which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
Americans who were alive 50 years ago and future generations have been left to ponder what would have happened if not for that fateful day: What if the bullets had missed and Kennedy had lived? What would his second term have been like? What would have been the results of the Civil Rights Act, passed less than a year after his death, or Vietnam, or other domestic or foreign policies?
The years would later unveil many of JFK’s foibles. But we still remain haunted and troubled by what happened in Dallas that day and the questions of who and what if ...
This editorial was written by a member of the American Press Editorial Board. Its content reflects the collaborative opinion of the Board, whose members include Bobby Dower, Mike Jones, Jim Beam, Crystal Stevenson and Donna Price.