Today is the 48th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination. I know it’s risky for a woman to give clues about her age, but I admit to remembering that day, now nearly (gulp) a half-century ago.
Two things about President Kennedy’s assassination stand out in my mind: the media’s non-stop coverage of it and the surprising bigotry of my then-neighbors in Rockville, Maryland that it exposed. The former is now a fixture of the American scene; hopefully the latter is less so.
As a little girl, I didn’t fully understand what was going on, but I knew that something important had happened because the usual TV fare of cartoons and kiddie shows had vanished, replaced with grim-looking men in white shirts and narrow ties endlessly reading bulletins. It was like a black-and-white grainy version of CNN, but on all the channels (no Disney Channel cable alternative to turn to).
Living in a D.C. suburb meant there was no local news respite either. The logistical details of JFK’s funeral constituted our local news. My parents were riveted to the television, which meant my little brother and I could mess about with our toys undisturbed. My dad, who had stood in the bitter cold in January 1961 to witness JFK’s inauguration, insisted we stand in the very long line to view the casket in the Capitol, but my brother couldn’t go the distance. I remember, to my enormous kid embarrassment, my mother having to knock on doors in a Capitol Hill neighborhood begging people to allow my brother to use their bathroom. After a couple of rounds of that, my mother was ready to take us home, and she did. Dad toughed it out, however.
Nowadays, coverage of a national tragedy would likely be relegated to the news channels, and kids wouldn’t be deprived of their favorite cable programs. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or if it would deprive young Americans of the experience of mourning a national tragedy, even if they, like me in 1963, couldn’t totally comprehend what was going on.
On the day after the assassination, I learned how it feels to be “the other.” One of our next-door neighbors’ boys (who was about my age) cheerfully told me how it was good that “that Catholic” Kennedy was killed. This shocked me and I ran inside to tell my mother about it. Naturally, she knew the kid was repeating what he had heard from his parents (who must have known we were Catholics), and told me I should stay indoors for a while. For as long as that family lived next door to us, things were never quite the same.
I realize that bigotry reflects the darkness in the human heart, and that darkness is still with us, no matter how many sensitivity seminars people have to attend. But things have improved since 1963. Thanks to the sacrifices by those in the civil rights movement, it’s no longer acceptable to simply shrug at bigoted statements. In today’s society, we have more tolerant expectations for American behavior, and, nearly 50 years after JFK’s death, I see that as a sign of progress — a sign of a better America.