First Person: The death of John F. Kennedy
First Person: The death of John F. Kennedy
The week of November 18, 1963 had the normal flow of news reported in the Alameda Times-Star. One front-page story reported vandalism at Donald D. Lum Elementary School. The Times-Star also reported that week on “Wilt the Stilt” – Wilt Chamberlain, the center for the San Francisco Warriors who had scored 100 points in a single game the previous year – and about the Navy quarterback Roger Staubach, winner of the Heisman Trophy that year. Another story that week covered the opening of the Posey Tube after refurbishment and conversion to one-way traffic out of Alameda.
One other story on November 21, 1963 showed me and other seventh graders in a photograph promoting “Book Week” at Haight School. We were engrossed in reading, standing before posters we had made. The most prominent poster would not be shown today. (See photograph number 1).
We had no way of knowing, but the next day’s Times-Star headline rendered all of these stories and all that they symbolized onto the far side of an historical divide. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago today by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas. (See photograph number 2).
We heard that JFK had been shot in our seventh grade class from our teacher, Marian Williams. It was before lunch and I raced home to hear Walter Cronkite announce the president’s death on our radio, standing with my mother in our house at 1611 Central Avenue.
At school that afternoon, there was a fight between future major league baseball star Chris Speier and another boy who was celebrating Kennedy’s death. The other boy was grabbed by a male teacher and physically hauled off to the office and suspended.
That Sunday we heard that Oswald had himself been killed. Later that day our family went to the Congregational church at Chestnut and Central for a community service for Kennedy. On Monday we watched his funeral on our black-and-white television.
Even in that pre-Internet era, the news spread with astounding speed. Within an hour of the shots, 68 percent of adults in the U.S. had heard about it, and by the end of the day the news had reached virtually everyone in the country. The assassination crowded out of public attention the deaths on that same day of two other very famous people – Aldous Huxley, an English writer and a member of a prominent family best known for his novel Brave New World, and C.S. Lewis, another English writer who is famous for The Screwtape Letters, The Chronicles of Narnia and other books of Christian apologetics.
In those several days, I saw adults grieving both outwardly and stoically and that was a first for me. Another teacher at Haight, Pauline Woods, was so distraught that by Christmas she had put together a school play likening JFK to Abraham Lincoln.
This is also when I became a lifelong reader of the news. I had a morning paper route and picked up about 50 issues of the San Francisco Chronicle at a drop-off point on Encinal Avenue where the Blue Dot Café now stands. In the days of the Kennedy assassination I began devouring news accounts before delivering my papers, sitting the on the sidewalk at 4:00 a.m.
The Kennedy assassination is also an important marker of my life. My family moved away from Alameda within months of Kennedy’s death. On the first anniversary I was in Santa Clara, which in that era seemed much farther away than now. (BART was about a decade in the future.) On the 10th anniversary I was a graduate student in Michigan. On the 15th through the 40th anniversaries I was working for Kaiser Permanente in Oregon, married, raising children, getting divorced, being a single parent, marrying again. Throughout those decades, I would recall Alameda as a wholesome and good place to have started life and as effectively concluded for me in November of 1963. As chance would have it, I moved back here a few years ago.
This personal narrative of course coheres with the conventional wisdom about the Kennedy assassination: It occurred at a time when America was more innocent and after Dallas, everything changed. Kennedy’s death marked the beginning of more than a generation of trouble. On the 30th anniversary of the assassination, historian Stephen Ambrose wrote:
There's a very strong sense that if he had not died, we would not have suffered the 30 years of nightmare that followed – the race riots, the white backlash, assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate.
Many still hold this view. But I think it is both more complicated and more simple than that.
I was 12 when JFK was killed. Over the past 50 years I have thought and read a great deal about the assassination, and offer the following thoughts.
In many ways JFK’s life was an irony. To start with, his life was much different than the voters with whom he connected: The future president was brought up in one of the wealthiest families in America.
JFK’s youth was affected by a competitive father, an absent mother and frequent serious illnesses. When Rose Kennedy went on a vacation in 1923 she wrote in her diary that her 7-year-old son John said, "Gee, you're a great mother to go away and leave your children all alone."
During his teens the country was gripped in the Great Depression, but later, Kennedy told a reporter: "I have no memory of the Depression. We lived better than ever. We had bigger houses, more servants. I learned about the Depression at Harvard – from reading."
Kennedy was sickly both as a boy and as an adult. When the U.S. entered World War II he could not have passed a physical exam to get into the military, but used his father’s influence. He served bravely.
His back troubles were from advanced osteoporosis (not from football injuries or war wounds, as we were told). He had Addison’s disease, which is an autoimmune destruction of the adrenal glands causing low blood pressure, low energy levels and other complications. By 1962 his health was increasingly iffy. He experienced excruciating pain daily and was cared for by several doctors. JFK always figured he would die young and lived life in a hurry.
Within 10 years of JFK’s death, the press began to report on his sexual promiscuity. These liaisons were with the girlfriend of a Mafia leader, with Marilyn Monroe and many others less famous or notorious.
It was President Lyndon Johnson who got the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed. Martin Luther King, disappointed at JFK's civil rights record, said that Kennedy lacked “moral passion.” Historian Garry Wills has written that what we call the Kennedy Era should be called the King Era. Hillary Clinton, campaigning for the presidency in 2008, divided credit for the civil rights advancement of that earlier era between King and Johnson, with no mention of JFK.
So, there is irony in his life and death and questions remain.
First, why did John F. Kennedy die when he did? Even today, it is hard for many to grasp this fact: John F. Kennedy was killed by a Communist who despised him for his Cold War stance. However, the conventional wisdom of 1963 was that it was otherwise, that somehow the young president was brought down by a climate of hate.
There is a hint of this in the Alameda Times-Star issue of 50 years ago today, in which reporter Wally Burke sampled opinion on the streets of Alameda about the assassination. Commander Theodore C. Rapalus of the Coast Guard station said, “I think it (the shooting) has something to do with the Civil Rights issue.”
A New York Times editorial lamented, "The shame all America must bear for the spirit of madness and hate that struck down President John F. Kennedy." Chief Justice Earl Warren decried the supposed "hatred and bitterness that has been injected into the life of our nation by bigots." Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield raged against "the bigotry, the hatred, prejudice and the arrogance which converged in that moment of horror to strike him down." Congressman Adam Clayton Powell advised, "Weep not for Jack Kennedy, but weep for America."
Here are facts that were known at the time. Agents who searched Oswald's room on the day of the assassination found left-wing literature, a letter about photography from the head of the American Communist Party, a letter in Russian from the Soviet embassy in Washington, letters from the “Fair Play for Cuba Committee,” and a letter from the Socialist Workers Party. It came out that Oswald had tried to kill right-wind extremist General Edwin A. Walker (his shot missed) with the same rifle he used to kill JFK. He had been arrested for an altercation with anti-Castro figures in New Orleans. Further, Oswald had visited the Cuban embassy in Mexico City, where he issued a threat on JFK's life.
Five years later, the late president’s brother, Robert Kennedy, was murdered by Jordanian Sirhan Sirhan shortly after winning the crucial California presidential primary. Over the years, some have tried to link the two assassinations as part of a vast plot to subvert the U.S. government; Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie “JFK” starring Kevin Costner leaves that suggestion. Failing that, the assassinations were linked by some as products of the “climate of hate.” But here is the simple truth: the Kennedy brothers were killed by two specific men with specific reasons. One was a Communist; the other was an anti-Israel Arab.
Second, what were the political consequences of the assassination of John F. Kennedy? I have thought about that question, as have many, for most of the past half-century. First, I have thought of things that I believe would have been the same even if Oswald had missed. Here’s my list:
• In the 1960s-1970s, major changes came through the courts and by the time of JFK's death an activist majority had been established on the Supreme Court. The majority had held for ending racial segregation and for reapportionment of legislative districts before JFK's death. It continued along this vein in the years after the assassination to expand the rights of the accused, abortion rights and other socials changes.
• Birth control pills had gone on the market in 1960 and thus the sexual revolution was on the way.
• Martin Luther King had already preached the "I have a dream" sermon, on August 28, 1963. The civil rights era was accelerated by Lyndon Johnson but was well underway at the time of Kennedy’s death.
• Michael Harrington had published The Other America, highlighting poverty, in 1962. Something like the Great Society was in the offing.
• Betty Friedan had published The Feminine Mystique in 1963 and the women’s movement would have arrived whether or not JFK had lived.
• Rachel Carson had published Silent Spring in 1962. The modern environmental movement was born and we would now have an Earth Day even if Kennedy had been a two-term president.
• Bob Dylan's “Blowin' in the Wind” came out in 1963. For many this was the anthem of the 1960s.
• Older Baby Boomers were almost 18 when JFK died and that cohort was on its way to causing all the issues that it did.
But I can also think of two large political developments that would have been different if Kennedy had served two full terms. The assassination put a superb legislative strategist, Johnson, in the White House. With the emotion of JFK’s death a factor, Johnson put through the Civil Rights Act, a tax cut, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare and other aspects of what we call the Great Society.
The largest question linked to an if-JFK-lived scenario is the Vietnam War. There are endless debates about what he would have done, and most of them have a partisan edge. I think at one level, the answer is simple: if Kennedy had lived it is hard to believe that he could have made more of a mess of the Vietnam War than President Johnson did.
There are still millions of Americans at the 50th anniversary of the assassination who recall it. But in another 50 years none of them will be alive. That brings us to the final question: How will President John Fitzgerald Kennedy be remembered on November 22, 2063?
I believe the television coverage of the assassination, Oswald’s murder and the presidential funeral guarantees that students in the 2060s will know of Kennedy as the president who was killed in Dallas. I also believe he will be remembered as the president who pledged accurately that humankind would get to the Moon within the decade of the 1960s. Further, his wonderful rhetoric will be recalled. Among many examples that will be remembered 50 years from now is this statement in a divided Berlin in 1963: "Ich bin ein Berliner" (“I am a Berliner"). He may be honored for standing up to the USSR in the Cuban missile crisis (although later historians have concluded that he gave up more to get that deal than we knew at the time).
For those of us now living in 2013 who recall the murder, I think he will always be remembered as the president whom we did not see grow old, as the one who left with unfilled promise and as an optimist who captured the spirit of the time.
Those are my thoughts and recollections. What are yours?
Jim Pruitt lives in Alameda and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Mr. Pruitt holds a Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of California, Berkeley, and a Master of Labor Relations from Michigan State University. He is the Vice President of Labor Relations for the Permanente Federation of Kaiser Permanente and a substitute teacher in Alameda. He attended Haight School from 1957-64.
1. From the Alameda Times-Star, November 21, 1963. Copyright Bay Area News Group, used with permission.
2. Composite from the front page of the Alameda Times-Star, November 22, 1963. Copyright Bay Area News Group, used with permission.