This weekend we observe the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination. Magazines and newspapers, and TV specials are recounting the story. The Zapruder film – footage taken by a man in the crowd – will be replayed. Was it a conspiracy? Did Oswald act alone? What about Ruby? Wasn’t Mrs. Kennedy brave! That photo of John-John saluting! How would the Civil Rights Act, the War in Vietnam, the Great Society have been different had JFK been able to finish his term and perhaps win reelection?
In addition to what-if speculation, the assassination has provided an ice-breaker for five decades. “Where were you when you heard that Kennedy was killed?” If you were alive then, of course you know.
I was in sixth grade at Crestwood School in Northbrook. We had just come back inside from noon recess. Someone in our class had gone home for lunch and had heard the news. A message from the principal’s office soon confirmed the report. Mrs. Diemer, our teacher, began to cry. Some of the other kids did, too. My parents had an out-of-town trip that weekend and my sister and I stayed with our neighbors, the Bakers. I remember that the assassination was the only thing on any of the four television stations (channels 2, 5, 7, and 9). By contrast, that day my husband was in class at the University of Michigan where he was a graduate student.
In January, 2012, I attended a library conference in downtown Dallas. My hotel was just across the railroad tracks from the famed grassy knoll and the Texas School Book Depository. The city street still goes under the tracks at Dealey Plaza, just as it did in 1963. I took advantage of a meeting-free afternoon and went to the Sixth Floor Museum in the Depository Building. I was relieved to discover that it was not a tourist trap. The exhibits tell Kennedy’s life and career in in detail – his boyhood in Boston, his WWII service (and the PT 109). He was elected to the Senate in 1952 at the young age of 35. He won the 1960 presidential election by the closest margin since 1916. The museum exhibits also show the global social and political context for the issues Kennedy dealt with: the Cold War and Communism abroad, the segregated South at home.
I observed the other museum visitors that day. People around my age, those who knew exactly where they’d been when they heard the news, were reflective and a little teary-eyed. But for teenagers there on field trips it was another museum. Important stuff, sure, but it was ancient history!
And indeed, it is history. The United States and the world were profoundly affected by the events that day. But we have moved on – some steps forward, some steps back, and some steps to the side.
Now we have another ice breaker for the ages: “Where were you on September 11, 2001, and heard the news about the Twin Towers?” But that is a story for another day.Sixth Floor Musuem in the Depository Building.