I grew up in a family of storytellers. Around our dinner table, stories of 1950’s era Harlem flow freely, as my grandparents talk about coffee dates with James Baldwin and nights that included live sets at the Cotton Club with Billie Holiday. As a child, these stories were the norm, and I never had a question about why photos hung in our living room of three figures: Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and former President John F. Kennedy.
Very early on, I learned Nov. 22, 1963 was a day of sadness and violence, uncensored and broadcast across the world, with no parental guidance label. It was real life. John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas, TX, with the world watching.
My mother was only 6 years old when JFK was assassinated 50 years ago tomorrow, on a Friday afternoon. The impact of his short time in office had a huge magnitude on a life my mother knew and one that’s only known to my generation through history books.
In just two years in office, JFK made a dent in a myriad of crises during his administration, and set the groundwork for the changes that rippled after his assassination. As the first “TV President,” he became the face of the nation: a charismatic president with an accessible first family. First Lady Jackie Kennedy was the first to welcome the nation into the White House with television broadcasts capturing her family at play and on holidays.
JFK ran on ideals of hope and change that inspired millions of African Americans and young people on college campuses in a way never seen prior. He was young, and fostered the idea that any man could achieve greatness and enjoy a slice of the American dream, regardless of their ancestry or economic standing. The effects were two fold: the media lens also made him the first modern president to have his personal life in tabloids, and his ideals were mired as radical and harmful to the nation’s status quo.
In New York, my parents grew up with nuclear bomb drills in school and were carefully kept out of the racially charged areas of the South. They received all of their news on a small black and white TV, from the Jackson 5’s first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” to watching Lee Harvey Oswald get shot in cold blood live on television. It was an era where reality TV resulted in mandatory drafts that claimed a fresh batch of 18 year olds for war, young men (and their families) praying that their birthdate wouldn’t appear on the screen.
Although JFK’s steps into civil rights war were weary, he did forge ahead with the idea that all men are deserving of inalienable rights, regardless of skin color. For this reason, African Americans supported his administration, as a new day seemed not so far out of reach. Throughout the violence, water hoses, and church bombings, African Americans held forthright to the idea that civil disobedience and resolve would overcome the barriers.
JFK represented a symbol of hope for the underserved and grossly overlooked citizens. For the first time in our nation’s history the youth vote and African Americans mattered.
An outpouring of grief in the form of mailed letters delivered to the White House the days following the assassination. Letters ranging from impressionable 5 year olds who saw JFK as “TV dad” to 95 year olds who expressed their apologies for turning a blind’s eye to prejudice they knew were unjust.
Civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated in June, just two months before JFK was killed. His widow, Myrlie Evers, reached out to Jackie Kennedy along with the 800,000 Americans who wrote the First Lady in the weeks following the assassination. Race and political belief aside, the two young widows lost their husbands to the same brand of evil that left their young children fatherless.
50 years later, the nation remembers John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The events of 1963 impacted a nation, and is a reminder of just how far we’ve come, and how far we can always go as a nation united.
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