The usual question for Americans on an Anniversary of National Significance is: Where Were You When…?
Where Were You When you learned that: Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot on April 4 in 1968? Neil Armstrong walked on the moon on July 21, 1969? The twin towers of the World Trade Center were attacked on Sept. 11, 2001?
But there is another question of orientation: Who Were You When … a certain nation-changing event occurred?
This is who I was — 50 years ago this month — when I heard that President John F. Kennedy had been shot.
I was in the fourth grade at East Elementary School in Memphis, Tenn.
It was a blustery Friday. Our teacher told us about the shooting — sometime after lunch — in a somber, straightforward way. I was anxious to get home and see what my parents would say. After all, they had supported Richard Nixon — not Kennedy — in the 1960 election and being a dutiful son, I had paraded through the neighborhood before the election chanting “Nixon, Nixon, he’s our man; Kennedy belongs in a garbage can.”
But when I got to my house on that dreary afternoon in 1963 and talked with my parents and saw the griefstricken looks on their faces and the tears in their eyes, I learned at that moment something I have carried in my heart since that day: Politics is not life. Life is life and life is sacrosanct and a person’s life transcends politics.
For this 50th anniversary of the national tragedy, we ask a trio of notable people: Who Were You When … you learned that President John F. Kennedy had been shot on Nov. 22, 1963? And — in retrospect — what effect did the event have on the rest of your life?
Randall L. Kennedy, Harvard Law School
“I was nine years old when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I first got an inkling that something terrible had happened when I noticed people on the street suddenly start sobbing. I was accompanying my very pregnant mother on her visit to a friend’s home.
“My parents and older brother were shocked and saddened by the news, as was I. President Kennedy, however, was no hero in my household. For months my father had been inveighing against him for failing to do enough to support the Civil Rights Movement. According to my dad, blacks had put Kennedy over the top in the close election of 1960 and the President had neglected to reciprocate their allegiance sufficiently.
“During the campaign, for instance, Kennedy had said repeatedly that with one stroke of the presidential pen, racial discrimination in federally-supported housing could be prohibited. He indicated that, if elected, he would wield that pen. After he became president, however, Kennedy’s commitment apparently waned. He waited until November 20, 1962 to sign a narrow version of the anti-discrimination provision he had previously championed.
“My father resented Kennedy’s tardiness. My brother, by contrast, stoutly defended the President. I remember their long, involved, impassioned debates that would accompany the family dinner and sometimes extend for what seemed like hours afterwards. Those debates intensified in the aftermath of Kennedy’s death.
“Those debates meant a lot to me then and have continued to be influential in my life. Amidst the shock and outpouring of emotion in that tragic moment, my father continued to insist upon a clear-eyed, hard-headed evaluation of the now-martyred President. He rejected all attempts to make him submit to the ascendant sentimentalism of the moment.
“When I grew up, I embraced my father’s view of President Kennedy and, more importantly, tried to adopt his intellectual and political toughness.”
— Randall L. Kennedy is the Michael R. Klein Professor of Law at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass.
Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College
“I know that Kennedy’s election made an impression on me that impacts my life today.
“I was 8 in 1960, and I recall conversations in my family concerning the possibility of the first Roman Catholic becoming president. My uncle Lawrence Fuchs, a professor at Brandeis, knew the Kennedys from Massachusetts politics and was a strong supporter. He later wrote a book, John F. Kennedy and American Catholicism.
“The conversations intrigued me as it was the first time I ever heard about different religions altogether — as far as I knew, everyone was Jewish — so the question of religious variety, not to mention religious intolerance, was new to me. I wanted to know more. When Kennedy was elected, I recall being proud that I lived in a country where ‘anyone could become president.’
“The assassination, when I was 11, made a different kind of impact, also related to what I do today. Although I was surrounded by Jews, I did not know anyone who went to synagogue regularly. Even though it was a Friday when Kennedy was killed, I do not recall anyone suggesting we go to synagogue that weekend. It simply did not come up. As a ritually starved, spiritual seeker — although I would not have known to call myself that at the time — I remember spending a huge amount of time glued to the television … particularly compelled by the funeral rites.”
— Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer is director of the Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa.
James H. Billington, Library of Congress
“The assassination of President Kennedy affected all of us as a terrible, shared human tragedy. In retrospect, it was a defining moment in my eventual move from academia into public service. As a young scholar of Russian history and international affairs, the murder of our young President jolted me into realizing that unpredictable danger and evil lay within America as well as in the outside world.
“I had been abroad with my young family conducting research in Helsinki and Leningrad during the exciting period when Kennedy was nominated, elected and inaugurated in 1960-61. I was subsequently fully immersed in university teaching and writing in the fateful fall of 1963. But I knew and admired many of the intelligent and idealistic young people who had answered in a variety of ways Kennedy’s call to ‘ask what you can do for your country.’
“Towards the end of the turbulent ’60s, I was privileged to work with unsung heroes in the first of three federal institutions that were keeping alive that same sense of dedication. During the last 45 years, I have served in succession as CEO of the Fulbright Program, of The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and, for the last 26 years, of The Library of Congress.
“The good that has been accomplished in these and other public institutions is the work of idealistic staff who continue to respond to the challenge to service that John Kennedy articulated for our times. And we are all still inspired by the desire somehow to recover the optimistic spirit of America raised up by a young leader who embodied hope, but was tragically denied the chance to see it sustained.”
— James Hadley Billington is the 13th Librarian of Congress in Washington, D.C.
And Who Were You…
So Who Were You when President Kennedy was shot? And how did the moment impact your life?
If you didn’t live through the national tragedy or don’t remember it, do you see ways in which that event has influenced you, the people you know or the United States as a nation?
Please share your stories with us in the comments section below. Thank you.
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