50 years on: the assassination of John F. Kennedy

J F Kennedy in open top car

Where were you when the news of President Kennedy’s assassination broke?

J F Kennedy in open top car50 years ago – 22nd November 1963, to be exact – the 35th president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated as he rode with his wife in an open-topped car in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas.

That date is indelible to every American of my vintage. We all know where we were, what we were doing and how we heard this terrible news.

I was in senior year of high school in Pleasantville, New York. We were having a history lesson when students from the physics lab across the hall came charging out, screaming that President Kennedy had been shot.

They’d just successfully completed their project, which was to construct a radio – and as soon as they tuned it in, that was the first thing they heard. The news spread round the school like wildfire.

Watching in disbelief

When I arrived home that afternoon, my mother was already glued to the television. We watched as revered television news journalist, Walter Cronkite, broke down in tears as he reported Kennedy’s death.

JFK giiving a speech

I remember the relief we felt when we heard that Kennedy’s alleged murderer, Lee Harvey Oswald, had been apprehended. This was soon followed by shock and disbelief as we watched on live TV as Oswald, handcuffed and in police custody, was shot and killed by Dallas night club owner Jack Ruby.

The ensuing investigations as to whether these men acted alone or were part of a conspiracy only added more mystery to this truly incredible set of circumstances. I was too young to take on board all the political implications.

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But what I do remember is the repeated television footage and magazine photo essays showing the president and his wife in the car, the bullet hitting him, her next to him in that bright pink suit and pillbox hat, trying to climb onto the back of the car to get help from the secret service man close behind.

As if it were yesterday

Vice President Johnson was quickly sworn in as president, his right hand raised as he took the oath of office, his left hand on the Bible, and a blood-splattered Jackie Kennedy standing next to him. I can conjure up these potent images as if it were yesterday, not 50 years ago.

I had never heard Chopin’s Funeral March before but can still hear its lugubrious tones and measured, heavy beat as it was played over and over again by the military band that escorted Kennedy’s casket through the streets of Washington, D.C. to his final resting place at Arlington Cemetery.

WIfe and children at Kennedy's funeral

And that hugely emotive photograph of little John Kennedy Jr. (‘John-John’), almost three years old, saluting his father’s flag-draped casket as it went by.

In my English class, we had just been studying Stephen Spender’s poem I Think Continually of Those Who Were Truly Great which he wrote in 1933. How the words of that poem resonated with my classmates and me – and even our teacher!

Born of the sun they travelled a short while towards the sun
And left the vivid air signed with their honour.

I was moved to write my own poem, a tribute to Kennedy – no doubt emotive doggerel, and fortunately no longer extant!

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The shock of a nation

For us – American youth of the 1960s – Kennedy had been our hero. At 43 he was the youngest president we’d ever had. He and Jackie and their young children seemed to be standard bearers for a brighter, optimistic future.

I was only 14 when he ran for office in 1960, but I bought a badge that said ‘If I Were 21, I’d Vote for Kennedy.’ I wore it with pride.

I have lived in England for the majority of my adult life, but the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination has made me reconnect emotionally with my homeland.

I wondered about my English friends – had they also been affected by Kennedy’s death? It was hugely comforting to listen to them share with me memories of that day in Dallas and its aftermath that were not unlike my own – that JFK had meant something to them, too.

History has revealed many things about Kennedy and his administration, about Kennedy the flawed human being, all of which have coloured our 21st century perception of the man.

The date 9/11 no doubt means more to a greater number of today’s population…but for an earlier generation, it was 22nd November 1963.

Mari Wallace

About Mari Wallace

I'm an American-born freelance writer and journalist, member of the Society of Women Writers & Journalists. I currently have a monthly column in Countryfile Magazine entitled 'My New Life in the Country - New Yorker Mari Wallace on life in an English village'. I've had pieces published in a range of magazines including The Oldie, Best of British, Saga, Sussex Life.