JFK: 50 Years Ago This Weekend

I am old to recall exactly where I was that tragic Friday afternoon in 1963.  I was a student at George Washington Carver Elementary School in South Central Los Angeles.  The school still stands on East 120th Street.  We had a substitute teacher that day.  She broke the news to us.  There was stunned silence.  And then fear.  I was afraid.  I was just a kid, but President John F. Kennedy was one of my favorite people. He was like a movie or TV star to me.  I loved seeing him on television.  I loved seeing him in photos in the newspapers and magazines that my parents brought home.  His face, voice and energy comforted me.  He gave me a feeling of hope and security.  He was like the country's new young dad to me.  President and Mrs. Kennedy represented a new frontier.
He inspired us to help others by promoting the Peace Corps.  He inspired us to take care of ourselves with physical fitness.  He inspired us to embrace the fine arts.  Because of him, I asked my mother to read me a poem by Robert Frost.  And, because of President Kennedy's vision, years after his death, we landed a man on the moon.

By the time I transferred to George Washington Carver Elementary, a shorter walking distance from home than my previous school, I had already experienced a physical act of bigotry.  A bigotry towards religion, not race, as one might expect.  I had been a little Catholic boy at a parochial school called St. Leo's.  Our playground for recess was a big, flat dirt field next door to a house that looked built on a foundation of misery.  The grass needed water and trimming.  Plants grew wild.  Branches stuck out like long skeleton fingers.  The house had an uninviting, creepy atmosphere.  The nuns told us never to walk onto its front yard.  Always stay on the sidewalk.  The little boy who lived in the house seemed to be a troublemaker and a truant.  He was.  One afternoon, I was standing at our playground entrance during recess.  The boy next door was walking by, then he suddenly dashed over to me and spit in my face.  He shouted "G*ddamned Catholics!" and ran into his miserable house, slamming to door shut.  Classmates shouted to our 2nd grade teacher, "Sister!  Look!"  I was humiliated, shaken and crying.  Sister Mary Benigna, a nun of infinite kindness, herself charged over to me.  She took tissues out of the pocket in her habit.  I heard the rustle of her rosary beads as she reached into the pocket.  She wiped the spit off my face and then enveloped me in a tight hug like an angel with black wings.

President John F. Kennedy was a hero in Catholic schools and to Catholic kids -- like me.  In American's history, there had been great prejudice towards Catholics.  He was America's first Catholic president.  And he listened to the concerns of black people at a time when we were still fighting for the right to vote in America.  President Kennedy was significant to me, as a youngster.  He was significant to my black Catholic parents.
One of the customs that our wonderful teacher at Carver Elementary started was the selection of a new weekly Bulletin Board monitor.  As monitor, you could pin up articles from newspapers or magazines that you liked.  This was how Mr. Boze, our teacher, got us students interested in publications and current events.  I was monitor one week and posted a photograph I loved.  I'd cut it out of The Los Angeles Times.  A photo of our president and his little boy.  "John-John" was playing in the Oval Office.
My seat was right next to the bulletin board.  When the substitute teacher broke the dark news to us, I turned and looked at the photograph I'd recently pinned onto the board.  I looked at little John Junior.  I thought "Someone killed your daddy."  Someone did something even more evil than just spit in face of President Kennedy.  He'd been shot.

Yes.  I remember where I was when I heard the news on November 22nd, 1963.

Students were sent out for an unscheduled recess.  No one played.  We just stood around.  The sky was clear blue.  Maybe a wisp of a cloud.  I was with two classmates, Gerald and Rosalind.  A jet roared overhead.  We looked up at it.  Gerard said, "Maybe it's a Communist."  We didn't even really know what a Communist was.  Then he said, "I'm scared."  I was too.  Was President Kennedy killed because he was Catholic?  Because he listened to black people?  What would become of us?  The world got frightening.  Grown-ups were scary giants.  I couldn't wait to be home with my parents and my little sister.

There was no playing at home those four days in November.  Mom, Dad, my little sister and I watched the live news coverage with the sort of reverence we usually saved for Sunday mass.  Back then, there was less technology but we Americans seemed to pay more attention and communicate with more substance.  We had only the three main networks -- ABC, NBC, CBS -- and local independent stations.  No cable.  Only lucky families that could afford it had color TV.  That long, sorrowful weekend, TV became surreal and it fascinated me in a serious way.  Until then, TV was mainly for entertainment.  It was a source of amusement.  It was in its infancy.  That weekend, television -- especially television news -- was slapped into a sudden and solemn young adulthood.  We were paralyzed with a national grief -- a grief that wouldn't be equaled until September 11th early in the next century.  While grieving the untimely death of our youngest president, we'd be shocked by something never seen before on live TV.

A man was shot and he'd die from his wounds.  That man was Kennedy's accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.  We got the news bulletin of President Kennedy's assassination but we did not see the shooting.  NBC had the live coverage of Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby.  To me, that world got even scarier with that killing.  The unbelievable was happening.

As a youngster, it was eerie to me that all three networks had the same thing, the same somber black and white images, and that there were no TV commercials at all.  When news coverage concluded for a time, symphony orchestras played classical music. I asked my parents the meaning of terms and words that were new to me -- like "lying in state" and "rotunda."  I asked Mom why there were no commercials, no TV shows and she replied, "Out of respect for the First Family."

That's how television was then.  It was respectful.
There was no school that Monday.  No mail service. The nation was in mourning.  Our emotions were raw.  At home, we watched the live coverage of President Kennedy's funeral together.  One of the most riveting experiences I will ever witness on live television was Mrs. Kennedy, the president's young widow, leading the national in grief that day.  My mother wept as Jackie Kennedy chose to walk behind her husband's casket in the procession.  Mom told me that, one day when I got older, I'd understand the power of what I was seeing.  She was right.  It was a heartbreaking, majestic and unforgettable event of mythic proportions and feel.  That shared national grief will never leave my soul.

Live television captured it all.  With respect.


Comments

  1. I was only 3 that year, but that day probably had more influence over me than any other in my life. My parents, especially my mother, all but worshipped the Kennedys. I never lived in a house without a bust of the President. They were the standards by which the world --- including me --- was judged. I must have absorbed my parents' sadness. That day, and that date, make me almost unbearably heartbroken.

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  2. I think, by late November '63, I had rheumatic fever and was on complete bed rest. I had a home teacher because I couldn't go to school. My family was devastated by this horror. There was sobbing for days and days. I remember thinking, if I had been there on the street...in the right place and at the right time, I would have happily taken that second bullet for him. He might have survived the first shot. I was only a ten year old kid, but seeing what happened to him, and the pain it caused his family and our country, I would done that...without a second thought...or first. At that time, we were also wondering what was going to happen next. A coup d' etat?...an invasion?...war with the Russians?

    I think, like most people, the next few weeks were surreal. When my home teacher came to my house, she wasn't as upbeat as usual...though she tried. It was a long time before she was back to her old self.

    I felt a lot of anger too...like..."How DARE this person kill our president!!"..."What gives him the right to change our history??!!" I'm sure I was not alone in feeling this way. Later, I was also bewildered statements saying that, not all of the information about the assassination will be divulged for an entire generation. Like everyone else, I just couldn't understand that...STILL don't.

    Someday, all will be revealed. I hope, I'm still around and can remember my own name, in addition to what they will be referring.

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    Replies
    1. Wow, Ken. What you wrote just made me go "Wow" in amazement. The feelings we both experienced when we were kids were so powerful. My nephew is 10. He's a sweet youngster. He never watches even local news. He has a steady visual diet of Disney-like shows and computer games. As his age, you and I both wondered what was happening to our stricken nation. I talked to Mom on Friday and mentioned it was the anniversary of JFK's untimely death. She knew and said, "Our country was never the same after that." Then she added that if we have the power to destroy, we also have the power to repair and rebuild. Thanks for leaving that comment, Ken. Thanks so much.

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