(Image from http://4umi.com/kennedy/)
45 years ago today, November 22, Lee Harvey Oswald shot President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. Countless newspaper articles, magazine essays, books, films and official reports restate the basic facts of the assassination and its aftermath. Many conspiracy theories still burn bright if only in caves scattered around the landscape.
Memories of that terrible moment are an iconic part of the collective American consciousness. We can still hear that mournful drum beating slow time to the presidential funeral procession’s march along Pennsylvania Avenue. We see Jacqueline Kennedy sheathed in black, and the small boy by her side saluting his father’s casket, John Jr., later, too, gone too soon. We remember being glued to the black and white television screens of that time, and stunned to witness first-hand Jack Ruby’s murder of Oswald at the Dallas police station. Americans back then were used to watching Ozzie and Harriet, not Law and Order, so witnessing a murder in real-time, just days after the president’s murder, was another appalling shock to the national psyche.
Kennedy was only in office for three years, in a time that now seems almost pre-modern. Indeed, his election in 1960 was hailed as the start of an entirely new age, and his legacy forever includes the establishment of the Peace Corps and launching of the American space program. But his term in office also came at the height of the cold war and concerns about the Soviet presence in Cuba, so close to the U.S. In 1961, the Bay of Pigs invasion, a CIA-directed effort to overthrow Fidel Castro, became a disastrous failure, and in 1962 the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the U.S. to the brink of nuclear war.
Scholars today continue to debate whether the course of history would have been much different had Kennedy lived. President Lyndon Johnson, succeeding Kennedy, advanced the remarkable liberal agenda of the Great Society, signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and led the nation through the traumatic mid-1960’s. The Civil Rights Movement was gaining a great deal of traction, the women’s rights movement was growing, and in southeast Asia a long-simmering problem called Vietnam was emerging as the biggest military failure ever in U.S. history. Vietnam eventually brought the Johnson presidency to an end, and the anti-war movement joined the other major social forces of the 1960’s.
The threads of the national fabric appeared to be unwinding by the late 1960’s, with the ripple effects of Kennedy’s assassination converging with violent civil rights clashes in the south and the rise of militant organizations like the Weathermen Underground and Students for a Democratic Society. Protests, riots, and then, more assassinations — Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. So it was that in the summer of 1968, 40 years ago during the Democratic National Convention, another kind of mob gathered in Grant Park in Chicago in a massive protest that grew violent, becoming one more iconic moment in this nation’s long struggle to define its central moral principles around peace and justice.
When Barack Obama stood triumphantly in Grant Park just three weeks ago, elected 44th president of the United States, the demons of the last five decades of U.S. history seemed in retreat, if only just for a moment. Today, as we remember the bright hope and fertile promise of another dynamic young president, let’s pray that our new president will be able to lead this nation in safety, toward true justice for all and peace around the world.