It’s the 50th anniversary of Pres. Kennedy being assassinated and everyone is asking: Where were you…?
I was in 6th grade at Roosevelt School in Janesville, WI. We had 3 main teachers and 2 student teachers that year. One of the student teachers was named Miss Funke. All the kids loved her – she was cool! She used innovative and engaging strategies in her teaching, a breath of fresh air from our regular teachers who had been teaching for many years. Miss Funke was cool because she was into the youth culture of the time: she liked rock ‘n roll and sock hops, she wore mini-skirts, did her hair in the fashion of the day, and understood the trials and tribulations of pre-pubescent students. She was also very upbeat – she had a sunny disposition and usually smiled.
On November 22, we heard right before recess that the president had been shot. I remember we kids debated whether he’d die or not outside during recess. One boy insisted he would, and I vehemently retorted that he wouldn’t. I was the type of person who always hoped for the best. I think I just couldn’t believe something as terrible as that could really happen. He had to recover – he had to!
My parents were Republicans and hadn’t voted for Kennedy; as an 11-year-old, I knew nothing of politics and mainly believed whatever my parents did. Still, no one wanted the president to die. The idea that he had been shot right out in the open was shocking. It was the first of what were to be several assassinations of important leaders during that tumultuous decade.
When we returned to class after recess, the principal came to every classroom to deliver the final news: Kennedy was dead. The import of it didn’t really affect me until I saw Miss Funke burst into tears suddenly and spontaneously when she heard the news. Sunny, enthusiastic Miss Funke was sobbing. We had never seen her cry or witness her sorrow before. Up to that point, I don’t think the news of the assassination was real to me. Miss Funke reduced to tears made it real and tears sprang to my eyes too.
I don’t remember if we were dismissed early – we probably were because I don’t remember any more of that day or Miss Funke teaching us while trying to contain her sorrow.
At home, all the TV stations (which consisted of three – CBS was channel 2, NBC was channel 5 and ABC was channel 7) preempted all their regular program to dedicate their broadcasts to the Kennedy assassination. The scene of the president and the First Lady riding in a convertible down a Dallas avenue, waving to the crowds, then suddenly seeing the president slump and Mrs. Kennedy lean over him, was played over and over. Those fuzzy black and white images became iconic. Thinking of it today, it’s amazing that the president would ride down a public street in an open car – today no important leader would do such a thing, probably due to what happened that day.
Later we watched the funeral, with the flag draped coffin in Washington D. C. being driven to Arlington Cemetery, and Kennedy’s widow, shrouded in a black veil flanked by her two little children, which made it all the more poignant. My parents, especially my mother, were somewhat news junkies (what would be considered so in those days anyway – they never missed a 5:30 national news broadcast) and those scenes were all we saw for what seemed liked days. My parents were shocked, but they didn’t cry. They were unified in the nation’s mourning and appalled as anyone as the events unfolded: Oswald’s arrest, Oswald’s assassination by Jack Ruby. It was all so senseless.
There are many conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination, as I suppose is natural for any assassination of a U.S. president or great leader. An investigation into what really happened didn’t take place for many years, and we all just accepted what we were told: Oswald shot Kennedy from a building across the street, and Ruby shot Oswald presumably to cover up a confession with incriminating evidence. But no one really knew, and no one really knows today, although it seems to be more and more accepted that Oswald in fact did not fire the fatal shot. Who did? We may never know. And perhaps it doesn’t really matter now.
More interesting were the discussions contemplating what would have happened in the world if Kennedy had lived. My mother was certain that he was a war hawk and would have greatly escalated the Vietnam War, that he in fact had already begun to send in more troops to Southeast Asia and that Johnson simply continued his policy. Most historians who have written about this, however, don’t seem to agree with my mother’s opinion. Of course, as I grew more politically aware in high school (although not that much more knowledgeable, I did adopt liberal ideas), I debated this subject with my mother, using the facts I had learned in history class as back up. But she was pretty fixed in her view – and again, my mother never had a very high opinion of Kennedy anyway. On the other hand, there are some who think we were headed for a nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis, which Kennedy managed to avoid at the cost of allowing the Cuban Revolution to succeed. He was strongly criticized for “weakness” during the Bay of Pigs invasion and the missile crisis, but compromise with the Soviets was crucial for avoiding a nuclear conflict.
Kennedy also deserves credit for starting the Peace Corps and getting the space program underway with his vision of putting a man on the moon. Unfortunately he didn’t live to see that become reality. He was a hero to black people for championing civil rights.
It is intriguing to contemplate what the world would be like if a seminal event such as the JFK assassination hadn’t happened. Books have been written about this – what if Lincoln had lived, what if Kennedy had lived. No one knows for sure although predictions can be made based on what those presidents’ ideas and policies had been, and what their successors continued on their behalf, and of course, authors’ own biases have to be taken into consideration. I was too young to feel Kennedy’s death as strongly as those who were older and more aware of national politics, and having developed strong feelings about a charismatic leader as he was. I more keenly felt the assassination of Martin Luther King, to me the greatest tragedy of the 60s. By that time, I was 16 and saw the affect of his assassination on my classmates and the faculty of my small private high school. I was very interested by then in the civil rights movement and the scourge of prejudice. I went home and read a book my parents had of King’s speeches, and realized what a great leader we had lost. Kennedy had just begun to deal with civil rights issues, having begun working on the Civil Rights Act, which passed in 1964 during the Johnson administration. His assassination cut short whatever leadership he might have shown during that movement. One thing is fairly certain: he would have been reelected, and possibly be followed by Johnson. Perhaps Nixon never would have had the chance to become president – THAT would have been a very good thing!