Nov. 22, 1963
Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, 12:30 in the afternoon, I’m in eighth grade gym class at Memorial School in Totowa, N.J. The gym at Memorial School was in the basement and had a low ceiling, so none of us were developing good jump shots. It was Friday, so we were probably playing dodge ball. Don’t remember for sure. But I remember the announcement that came over the PA system. President Kennedy had been shot. Our gym teacher didn’t know what to say. He just told us to go back to the locker room, get dressed and go home.
Both of my parents worked so there was no one home in the middle of the day. I headed to my favorite hangout, Elsie’s Sweet Shop on Union Boulevard. I walked in and saw the class tough guy sitting at the counter crying. That’s when the meaning of what just happened struck me.
The U.S. shut down for a few days after JFK’s assassination. My family sat in front of the TV during that time. I wasn’t a novice when it came to seeing violence on TV. I watched The Untouchables every Thursday night. But I wasn’t prepared for what I was to see on Sunday, Nov. 24. As we sat in the living room waiting for a glance at the scoundrel who shot JFK we saw strip club owner Jack Ruby step forward and shoot him. I think that was the only time I’ve ever seen someone shot live on television.
My family didn’t have any conspiracy theories to explain this. We didn’t know at the time who Jack Ruby was. We just assumed he was an outraged American out to administer some Texas justice.
The decade of the 60’s is remembered for a lot of things. It was the decade of sex, drugs and rock and roll. For some it was a time for coming out, for others a time for liberation. The top results of a USPS survey in the 90’s about what would best “commemorate” the 60’s identified the top memories as the Beatles, Woodstock and Star Trek.
For me the 60’s was the decade of the gun. Two of the most memorable and most profound “where were you when” moments in my life were the assassination of JFK and the killing of four students at Kent State while I was going to school there. While not chronologically exact, these two events framed the decade in my mind.
June 12, 1963. Bryon de la Beckwith, a WWII veteran and salesman who was a member of the white supremacist Citizens Council, shoots NAACP field secretary Medger Evers.
Nov. 22, 1963. Former Marine turned Soviet defector Lee Harvey Oswald shoots President John F. Kennedy.
Nov. 24, 1963. Jack Ruby, a local strip club owner who catered to Dallas police, shoots Lee Harvey Oswald.
Feb. 21, 1965. Three members of the Nation of Islam assassinate influential black nationalist and Muslim activist Malcolm X.
April 4, 1968. Escaped convict James Earl Ray shoots civil rights leader Martin Luther King.
June 5, 1968. Anti-Zionist Arab Sirhan Sirhan shoots Senator Robert Kennedy, JFK’s brother, as he campaigns for the Democratic nomination for President.
May 4, 1970. Following protests of Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia, Ohio National Guardsmen open fire on students on the campus of Kent State University, killing four and wounding nine.
May 15, 1970. Mississippi state police open fire on Jackson State University students during a protest of the Cambodian offensive, killing two and wounding 12.
And that says nothing of the civil rights workers and demonstrators killed by rednecks posing as law enforcement. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, on June 21, 1964, were arrested in Mississippi while working to register black voters and were later turned over to Ku Klux Klansmen, led by Edgar Ray Killen, a part-time minister and sawmill operator, who murdered them. Nor did I mention here the 58,000 Americans killed in Vietnam.
The End of Optimism
The decade got off to an optimistic start. For most it was a time of prosperity. In 1960 most of us had a car, a refrigerator, a TV, a washing machine and a dryer. The GI bill benefits sent many of our parents to college and many more were able to buy a home in the suburbs. The first wave of baby boomers was on the verge of becoming teenagers.
The election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 signaled not just a change of party in the White House but an emergence from a decade of Cold War paranoia and stifling mores. We hadn’t seen a relatively young man with an attractive, fashionable wife move into the White House. And a Catholic at that. Viewed from a time after we elected a black president, electing a Catholic may not seem like much of a milestone, but JFK was the first.
The Democratic Platform for the 1960 election promised a “New Frontier.” Minimum wages would go up, a national health insurance plan for the elderly was promised as was civil rights legislation. The vision included improving conditions for all workers and launching a campaign to eliminate urban slums.
In reality little of this happened during Kennedy’s aborted term. It was not the popular and dynamic JFK that delivered on these promises but rather his decidedly unpopular and untrustworthy successor LBJ. It was Johnson who signed into law the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and it was his administration that created Medicare and Medicaid.
So while JFK may well have been more style than substance, he was nonetheless a powerful symbol of the new decade. And it was the bullet that killed him in 1963 that made it clear that the 60’s weren’t going to turn out to be what we had expected and hoped for.
Part 2 is about what went wrong.
The 60s were certainly a turbulent time in the U.S. I was 9 years old when JFK was shot and admit I don’t remember any specifics about that day, although I think it did get announced in school. My family did not have a television at that time and I wouldn’t have watched any coverage. I was in Canada, but I know the effect was felt there as well as in the U.S.
I love the 60s. I personally missed them, but I think they are such an interesting and colorful time in relatively recent history. I imagine it was pretty shocking to see someone shot on live television. The only thing comparable since then is probably September 11th. That was also a time where people were glued to their televisions. Those watching live saw so many people die, especially as the towers crashed. Needless to say, I see why you named this the “decade of the gun”. There was more public loss due to guns at that time than any other time in recent history. Looking forward to part II.
I’m Canadian but I can tell you exactly what i was doing at the time JFK was shot – I was babysitting and watching the Edge of Night when the program was pre-empted to report this news. I can also tell you that I started to cry. The JFK era added sparkle to life which even affected us here. From that point it seemed life took a turn for the worse – with all the gun related incidents you mentioned, the violence on campuses, the drugs and loss of respect for authority (much of it deserved). But good things also came about, as this truly time was the start of the civil rights movement even though the principal players JFK and MLK were no longer around to participate.
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JFK was a friend of my godmother’s and it was definitely the maffia that killed him. One maffioso got drunk at the Mount Kenya Safari Club and bragged about it. It’s a disgrace that the gun lobby has the power it has in the US. Not only famous people but an abundance of ordinary people, even children, die every year because of it. Can guarantee you that the founding fathers, such as Benjamin Franklin would not approve of that. It was one thing to need to carry guns when the constitution was written but now?
The sixties brought so many changes. I was teaching 2nd grade when JFK was shot. Our administration told us not to tell the children but when we teachers met in the faculty room, we let out our feelings. It was such a shock and I remember being glued to the tv for days. Nothing else was on except this horrible occurance and its aftermath.
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It does seem that even though it was the LBJ administration that passed all these bills it was the JFK administration that got the ball rolling. I saw a documentary where LBJ said after the shooting that he would carry on the legacy of JFK. I know the two were not seeing eye to eye on many things but when it comes down to it the two as a tandem effort did make strides towards a better future for the country with tragedy all around them. Great article.
True, as long as you don’t take Vietnam into consideration.
Really interesting post, and the decade was incredible in terms of the number of assassinations. And I think you’re correct in saying JFK got things rolling, and not just because of being shot. I’ve done a fair amount of research for my recent novel – as well as having personal memories of the period, and it’s incredibly disturbing. And you haven’t even mentioned Vietnam yet.
Great post-Ken. The 1960’s were a bit like the Rennasanice. So many parts of our culture were affected by the events that took place during the 1960’s. The protests and social movements during the sixties changed artistic standards, values, and ideas about society. In addition, the 1960’s demonstrated the difference, and the power individual can have one an entire culture. Individual power for good and evil. The events that occurred during the 60’s influenced the world’s state of mind.
That really seems to have been a seminal moment in many lives, not just in the U.S., but around the world. JFK represented such hope and change, and his sudden death was traumatic. I guess in some ways, that’s also representative of the 60s – the unthinkable, the unexpected. But you can’t help but wonder, what would have been if JFK had lived …?
Great Post Ken, thanks for the history lesson.
I wasn’t born in the 60’s but from reading and research a lot happened then.
It was an intresting period.
I did not know about all such terrible incidents about 60s.
This post is very informative and came to know a lot about US history during 60s. My father was just 2 years old then. I am sure he too do not know redt except JFK,will share with him.
But I can understand the situation in country as experienced during murder of Benazir Bhatto.
I always wonder what are the motivations behind such people who leave nation to grief.
Very sad and tragic incidents are mentioned.
I am looking forward to Part 2.
Thank you for the information.
Gosh – I was very young and in Kenya at the time JFK was shot but I clearly remember this being announced on the Radio and my dad and his friends getting upset about it and discussing the news. JFK and his family were loved and respected by my dad and his friends.
I am couple years younger than you, but do remember Bobby Kennedy getting shot. In a house full of democrats, the 1960’s were a conflicting decade. You had the civil rights movement, and the war on poverty moving forward, and those who represented it were being killed. I am looking forward to the next post.
Ken, it’s interesting to me that the decade that we think of now as “peace and love” was also defined by guns and violence. Can’t wait to read part two of this interesting perspective!
“The election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 signaled … an emergence from a decade of Cold War paranoia …”
I’m not so sure I buy that. When Kennedy was elected, Nikita Khrushchev – the guy who proclaimed “We will bury you!” to the West – was still leading the Soviet Union. I also note that (1) the Bay of Pigs fiasco happened only a few months after Kennedy’s inauguration and (2) the Cuban Missile Crisis took place in 1962.
I was only an infant during Kennedy’s presidency and have no real memories of that time, but my intuition tells me there was plenty of Cold War paranoia to go around.
Your point is well taken. In making that comment I’m thinking of Kennedy’s election more than his administration. As I pointed out later in the post there was a big difference between the promise of Kennedy and the performance. The Cold Warriors voted for Nixon in the 1960 election. Kennedy’s campaign was based on so-called New Frontier issues. So I believe it represented the beginning of a change of attitude. We all bought into the Cold War in the 50’s. In the 60’s, we started to ask questions.
The 60’s seemed like a very interesting period. The only thing that I know about it is what I was taught in school. I wonder are things really that much better now than they were back then.
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Great flashback, Ken. I was born in 1959, so the start of the 60s went over my head. However, I have distinct memories of my Mother sitting us in front of the TV for Bobby Kennedy’s funeral and explaining that this was a very important moment in our country. She did the same with MLK. That became more impactful in retrospect. I grew up in very rural farm country of PA. My family was not political and lived a quiet life. So looking back and understanding that my small-town folks were outraged at the loss of MLK–and these other leaders–made me view a lot of things differently. It was college before I read about Malcom X–he had the potential to go from radical to exceptional leader.
Thanks for making us think!