KENNEDY and ASSASSINATION
A REMEMBRANCE OF KENNEDY
by Jim Henderson
`Let the word go forth from this time and place...that the torch
has been passed to a new generation of Americans--born in this
century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace,
proud of our ancient heritage.'
After 20 years, the events seem as compressed as a leanly
A sunny day, a dark convertible, a steady din rebounding
from the canyon walls above a crowded street, three cracks from a
rifle in a sniper's nest, a scramble below, engines racing, a
sobbing black woman outside Parkland Memorial Hospital, a
policeman shot across town, a pronouncement of death, a scrawny,
handcuffed suspect in a corridor with Jack Ruby's .38 exploding
in his belly.
The nation was stunned by the images that were transmitted
from Dallas--hard images formed in terse, teletype prose and more
vivid ones fashioned from bits and pieces of celluloid.
America paused to watch the newsreel.
A new President quickly sworn in and airlifted into command,
a bloodstained widow never far from the coffin, a change to
black, a bewildered daughter kneeling before a flag-draped box in
the Capitol rotunda, the wintry streets of the capital, a dark
riderless horse with empty boots facing backward in the stirrups,
a slow-moving caisson, a young boy saluting the honor guard
carrying his father to Arlington National Cemetery, the lighting
of the eternal flame.
On the day John F. Kennedy was buried, Alistair Cooke wrote:
"He was snuffed out. In that moment, all the decent grief of a
nation was taunted and outraged. So along with the sorrow, there
is a desperate and howling note from over the land. We may pray
on our knees, but when we get up from them, we cry with the poet:
Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the
dying of the light."
It is only in memory that the howling note from those four
days flits past. Behind the newsreel, the hours were agonizing
and interminable. For many, particularly in Dallas, time moved as
slowly as a motorcade or a horse-drawn caisson.
Erik Jonsson, then-president of the Dallas Citizens Council,
would recall the anxiety he felt when the President did not show
up on schedule for a luncheon at the Trade Mart. What's going on?
he asked himself over and over as the wait, only a few moments in
duration, seemed endless.
After 12:33 p.m. Nov. 22, 1963, the time the first news
bulletin notified the republic that its President had been shot
in Dallas, the city stood motionless and helpless, waiting for
the firestorm of scorn. It came in searing, overlapping bursts.
"Are these human beings or are these animals?" Adlai Stevenson
had asked moments after he escaped from a violent crowd in Dallas
a month earlier.
The world looked again at Dallas with the same question. It
would seem, in the slow-motion drift of events, that the answer
would never come. Dallas mourned the assassination as the rest of
the nation mourned it, as a deeply personal tragedy.
Schoolteachers wept as they broke the news to their classes. Men
cried in public. Rage and shame and guilt and dread melted into
one great immobilizing glob of emotional turmoil.
An eternity, two hours and 20 minutes, passed before the
truth would be known. Kennedy's assassin was not of Dallas, was
far removed from the nation's perception of the city and the
city's own worst fears of itself.
In time, the world, as well as Dallas, would believe the
city was merely caught in one of history's inscrutable warps,
that it was only by chance that the light passing through the
long prism of that era intersected in Dealey Plaza.
The howl that was heard through the dark night of those
times had the tone of a primal scream, a victim raging against a
felon. In truth, it was a cry of national doubt, of the sense
that America would not be the same. More than mere innocence was
lost that day in Dallas. With it went the cable that anchored the
nation to its sense of order.
To the historians who define eras in terms of events rather
than years, the decade of the '60s was born in Dallas.
In a great, shuddering spasm, the fragile floodgates that
had held back the reservoir of a restless social movement was
punctured by the bullets that rained down from the Texas School
Within months, America would experience the first of her
long hot summers, just the beginning of another newsreel: the
dogs and fire hoses of Birmingham, the first smiling Marines
marching into Vietnam and returning in body bags, campus radicals
occupying the administration building at Columbia University,
rioting outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago,
the fires of Watts and Newark and Detroit, Dr. Strangelove,
Apollo 11, Woodstock, Charles Manson, the cultural revolution,
the counterculture revolution, the sexual revolution, the
yippies, the hippies, the peaceniks and the crazies.
In 1968, Stuart Udall, secretary of interior for both
Kennedy and Johnson, was asked his opinion of the times, which
seemed to be reeling out of control. He offered a sober, but
"This may be remembered," he said, "as the most creative
time in our history."
It did not seem such an outrageous judgment when the
hurricane had passed. A sorting out had occurred in the storm.
Not many years would pass before a black preacher from Chicago
would run for the presidency. Women would flood the work place
and supervise staffs of men. Men with an eye on the White House
could talk of a female running mate without risking ridicule.
Wars would be harder to make, nuclear waste harder to conceal,
books harder to burn, air harder to pollute, justice harder to
America was starkly different. Kennedy's presidency and his
assassination may have been essential to unlocking the passions
of the time, but what the land became was neither his legacy, nor
Oswald's nor Dallas.'
After the trauma and shame and guilt were gone, the judgment
of history would be that Kennedy and Oswald, Edwin Walker and
Martin Luther King, George Wallace and Stokely Carmichael, Angela
Davis and George Lincoln Rockwell, Dallas and Los Angeles,
Memphis and Birmingham, Detroit and Da Nang were fragments of the
American character, slivers of the dream and the nightmare.
The legacy of that sunlit moment in Dallas was a nation's
fretful and all-consuming search for itself, a long and howling
rage against the dying of the light.