Most of us in my generation, who were children when JFK was shot fifty years ago, were at school when we learned of the assassination. For many of us who were very young it was a frightening time because our teachers and other adults at school were so upset that they couldn’t help us children through the experience appropriately. I was in my fourth grade classroom at Zoller Elementary School when our principal made an announcement over the P.A. System. He said that the fire drill scheduled for that day had been canceled. He said that the President had been shot and killed in Dallas. School was to be dismissed in an orderly fashion. My teacher leaned against her desk and wept. I didn’t understand at first. I thought the president of the fire drill company had been killed. It was inconceivable that President Kennedy had been killed.
My family lived across the street from the school, so I had a short walk home. From the driveway, I could see into the house through the large picture window. My mother sat in our living room uncharacteristically watching the TV in the middle of the day. I was too young to comprehend what had happened, but I remember standing at the end of the driveway and not wanting to go into the house. I didn’t want to see the TV. I didn’t want to understand. Once inside, I followed the images on the TV and absorbed the shock and grief of our nation. I was a little girl and so I looked for Caroline. She had lost her daddy. That was a sorrow I could understand. The image that stays with me the most from living through that tragic sequence of events was Dan Farrell’s iconic photo for the Daily News of John-John’s farewell salute to his father’s coffin. That made me cry. It still does.
The assassination of JFK was the defining moment for my generation. Although many others followed (such as the assassinations of MLK, RFK, Malcolm X, etc.), JFK was the beginning. For my children’s generation, the defining moment was the fall of the Twin Towers. How sad that these horrific events have such a powerful ripple effect on our lives. After the assassination of JFK, Malcolm X commented, “The chickens have come home to roost.” He was pulverized in the media for those words. But can we honestly condemn him for that observation? Can a country built on the racism of slavery and the genocide of Native peoples, a country based on violence, a country committed to using violence to solve problems, a country at that time in the grip of the Cold War and barely a step removed from the McCarthy Era, a country obsessed with guns, expect anything other than the violence that took such a promising leader from us so early in the trajectory of his career? After Sandy Hook, Obama could not even round up enough support in Congress to pass the most rudimentary gun control legislation. It seems that the lessons of history are lost on those with power.
I posted a question on Facebook this week, asking people how old they were at the time of the assassination and what they remember. Here are some edited excerpts from the many responses I received; some of the memories that I found particularly intriguing.
I was in school. DuSable Upper Grade Center, 7th grade. 12 years old. A teacher walked into our room, whispered to my teacher and left. Mr. Staples announced that President Kennedy had been shot. There were a lot of tears that day. I was stunned, I don't even remember what happened right after that, but the world around me was very quiet. – Wanda Sowa
The day President Kennedy was assassinated is one of my most vivid memories as a child. I remember clearly that day being in the school library. I was in 5th grade, and one of the high school students came in to tell everyone that the President had died. She was crying -- this was significant because her parents, along with mine, had been very active in the Civil Rights Movement and had worked hard on the local scene for the Kennedy campaign. After we heard the news, it seemed so surreal. School closed and I remember my Dad coming to pick us up and take us home. A dark day in American history, indeed. – Sheila G. Blake
I was a sophomore in high school in Chicago Heights, Illinois. I was in the school choir in a school with 3,000 students. [We did a concert that day.] At the beginning of the concert, the Principal announced to the auditorium of High School Kids that our President had been assassinated. Students screamed and cried, and we couldn't imagine such a thing happening. We then composed ourselves and sang our hearts out for our fallen President. The audience was very quiet appreciating the time to sit there and listen and reflect on the day's events. Everyone's lives were changed that day and we all knew it. – Tom Montesonti
I was playing kick ball and I think in the third grade. It came over the loud speaker at high volume, so even outside we heard it very crisply. I was running from second to third base. I remember everything, those few days will be forever etched in my mind. I also saw Lee Harvey Oswald LIVE on TV being murdered. That was another first for our country. Seeing someone murdered live on the television. – Divora Stern
I was sitting in junior high Biology class when my teacher announced that our President had been shot. Then he started weeping and so did we. –Sandy Metzler
I was 17, still at school doing A-levels - but at home in Cheshire (north of England) with my mother when the news came. I was reading, my mother watching TV; we were waiting for my father - a policeman - to come home from duty. The television programme was interrupted with the newsflash. I was stunned: couldn't believe it. Kennedy was a hero to most of my generation in England. For me, JFK seemed a new kind of politician, with a wide world view, a scholarly background, a gift for language and for engaging with people - as well as a man with love of family, and a religious faith. In the years since then, we have heard revelations of another side to his personal life - and some people tell me he didn't handle the Bay of Pigs as well as he might have done; but that sense of loss and waste - even grief - have never left me. –Helen May Lawrenson
There was weeping. Our class filed out and got coats on and as we left the building, I noticed one of the teachers weeping. Miss Fine. I'll never forget how I realized "even the adults" were affected. When I got home, the silence was deafening. All of us watched TV and were just flattened by the news. We watched Jack Ruby murder Oswald. It was just unlike anything I'd ever experienced that weekend. My parents couldn't even decode it for me. We all just watched. And cried. I had written a letter to JFK and his family and sent a few drawings to the White House that summer. I wrote to President Kennedy that he and Nikita Khruschev should "make up with one another" and that there should be no war or bombs. In September, I got a letter of reply from the White House staff, and 2 photos. One of JFK and one of Jacqueline and the children. I treasured that manila envelope and the contents for a long time. – Brooke Mackie-Ketcham
I was 22, living & working in NY City, for a Public Relations firm. I heard the news when I was out to lunch, went back to the office and cried with a friend. One of the Account Executives came back and wanted to know why we were crying. We thought he hadn't heard the news and told him. "Is that any reason not to be working?" he asked, and walked away. I left soon after, met up with my brother and we went to St. Patrick's Cathedral to sit quietly for awhile. We spent the next couple of days at my loft watching TV, including the moment Oswald was shot. By the time Bobby was shot, I was so numb from the assassinations (JFK, MLK, other civil rights people), all I could say was, "of course." A deep shattering of my ideals and my innocence. Watching and listening to the 50th anniversary I've choked up each time, still feel the grief and loss. And so appreciative watching how Jackie handled herself and what needed to happen. At 34 she was the essence of grace, strength and fortitude. –Muhasibi Shalom