JFK: 50 Year Anniversary

Baltimoreans reflect on the significance of John F. Kennedy's assassination and how it resonates a half century later.

Edited by John Lewis

–Illustration by Sonia Roy

Jess Blumberg

Senior editor, Baltimore magazine, 27

The 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination came up recently during a dinner with friends, all in their late 20s, early 30s. Mind you, we were hardly in an intellectual setting—Ocean City isn’t exactly a hotbed for political banter—but the conversations were thought-provoking nonetheless.

“He seemed like a politician people could relate to,” my one friend said, after explaining that she had just seen The Butler (which features James Marsden playing JFK).

“I don’t know. To me, he seems overrated,” another friend interjected confidently. “It was all golden and Camelot, but I wonder how much he would have been revered if he wasn’t assassinated.”

“He was actually shot 20 years to the day before I was born,” a third friend mused. “Yeah, November 22. I should probably care more about it. But it was so long ago. I don’t really think about it.”

I found it striking that each of my friends had a specific take on JFK. After all, not only were none of them born at the time of the assassination, but even our parents were still very young. What all of this goes to show is that JFK’s legacy and the assassination resonated with our generation—and continues to a half-century later.

When you begin think about it, it’s easy to see why. Clues to his enduring impact are all around us. The Kennedys are pervasive in pop culture—whether it’s an Oliver Stone movie, a Marilyn Monroe joke, a heavy Boston accent from a Simpsons character, or a pivotal season-ending plot point on Mad Men. Also hard to ignore are the parallels between him and our current president—the good looks, fashionable wife, and two young children playing on the Oval Office rug and White House lawn.

And, like my one friend pointed out, Kennedy was relatable—the young president represented progress. Similarly, during President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, I felt more engaged in politics than I ever have—a sentiment I know was echoed on college campuses and in urban settings across the country.

Kennedy was also able to connect with young people, as well as break the Irish-Catholic barrier, engaging an entirely different demographic. Obama, of course, achieved a similar and monumental feat. Seeing an African-American get elected President was a pivotal moment for our country, and a milestone that many wished civil-rights champions—like JFK himself—were still around to see.

But regardless of these connections, the assassination itself will never pack that visceral wallop for me that it did for those who were alive. My dad, for example, was only seven years old at the time, but his memory of the incident is vivid. He recalls the hallways of his elementary school, the teachers scrambling when the news broke—and, of course, the live TV coverage when Lee Harvey Oswald was shot in front of millions.

I have heard plenty of these “You know exactly where you were” stories and the only way I feel like I, or anyone in my generation, can relate is to think back to the panic of 9/11. “I remember walking to my first class when one of my friends ran to me, shouting, ‘We’re at war! They’ve attacked the World Trade Center!’” recalls local opera singer (and millennial) Caitlin Vincent, who recently played Jacqueline Kennedy in Camelot Requiem. (You can read more of her thoughts on page 178.) “September 11 will always be the date when the world changed forever: transforming from one we thought we knew to one we knew to fear. November 22, 1963 is a date of similar significance for the baby boomer generation.”

Like Vincent, I imagine that panicked feeling was similar to that horrible day in November. Of course, news about the Dallas shooting trickled in slower than it did in 2001. The world watched Walter Cronkite with bated breath, instead of being able to follow updates on CNN.com. All eyes, I’ve heard, were glued to TV sets, and the world seemed to shut down as an era—characterized as Camelot—had come to an end.

That era, though well depicted in history books and on screen, is another concept that’s difficult for those of my generation to connect with. We never lived it, of course, and our associations with the Kennedy clan have less to do with Camelot and more to do with the so-called “curse.” Since the assassination, the Kennedy family has been pummeled with one ill-fated event after another—Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, the Chappaquiddick incident, other car crashes, a skiing accident, and the death of John F. Kennedy Jr., to name a few.

I do remember JFK Jr. clearly—his handsome face plastered across the cover of People magazine. While he was certainly no president, the idea of his and his wife’s death made me realize that the story was still being told—the story of this huge Massachusetts bloodline being doomed for tragedy. Camelot, indeed, seems like just a fairy tale for those who weren’t around to see it.

But there was one time when the assassination felt very real—when I got an inkling of the incident’s power. In a college journalism class, our professor showed the Zapruder film of Kennedy being shot in Dallas. That slow-motion footage is now forever ingrained in my mind, where I’m sure it resides for many others. Some classmates even had to leave the room because it was too intense. But this was the first time I really watched. No longer was this just the 35th president on a term paper. This was a man, whose wife sat beside him as his brains were blown out of the back of his head. This was a man who was just trying to do his job—in a top-down convertible at his insistence—one crisp November afternoon.

Probably the most haunting part of that film comes right before he is shot, and that is the image that resonates with me, that is the image I see in my head when I think of John F. Kennedy: a blurry, Technicolor frame of a handsome man waving to the crowd, an eternal symbol of what could have been.

Gus Russo

Investigative journalist, 64, co-editor of Where Where You? America Remembers the JFK Assassination

Trying to explain the impact of JFK’s death to a generation that lives in the micro-moment, eschewing history books in favor of cosplay and Grand Theft Auto V, borders on the impossible. But for the tiny minority that recognizes the study of history as the best means to understand our present and future, I’ll throw in my two cents.

To fully comprehend how the bloody events of November 22-24, 1963 (three dead, one wounded, 189 million traumatized) metaphorically wounded a generation, one must seek perspective. The world before JFK was drenched in grays: gray-haired presidents who resembled retired corporate execs; the eerie, grayish light emanating from ubiquitous black-and-white TV sets; and the darkening gray clouds of the nascent civil-rights movement. But by 1961, the year of Kennedy’s inauguration, color television consoles from Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery Ward were finally affordable and saturating the country’s living rooms—just in time, it turned out, for the first presidential inauguration broadcast in color.

It was a fitting synchronicity that bordered on the surreal, for on Friday, January 20, 1961, we watched as America’s first young, movie-star president (43 years old, the youngest elected in history) and his movie-star leading lady (31 years old) were ushered into the nation’s house previously occupied by Dwight D. Eisenhower (70) and his wife Mamie (64). Jack’s golden tan, coupled with Jackie’s near-porcelain beauty were nothing short of breathtaking.

In today’s terms, it would be like Brad and Angelina succeeding George H. W. Bush and his pearl-necklace-wearing wife Barbara.

Amazingly, another synchronicity was also taking place: the post-war baby boom generation was now old enough to have some money in its collective pockets. We were arguably the first American teenagers that could choose a college education (or to just meander) over entering the workforce. We had numbers, power, and a sense of adventure unavailable and unthinkable to our wartime parents. And now we had our young First Family to lead the way into this new frontier, JFK doing it with a wicked sense of humor to boot. (He kept the Fourth Estate in stitches at his frequent press conferences; they were in the palm of his hands. Had this ever happened before?) It was a confluence of events to beat them all, and it seemed—for white America at least—like it was time to have big fun. JFK did it with the Rat Pack, and we teens did it with rock and roll. We were even going to go to the moon! Hang on for the joy ride.

With light speed we were projected into what seemed like a new and exhilarating universe. A few years later, John Lennon wrote a song titled “Sun King,” which he said came to him in a dream: “Here comes the Sun King. Everybody’s laughing. Everybody’s happy.” For many of us, JFK was the Sun King. It seemed too good to be true, and, of course, it was: JFK’s golden glow was, in fact, the byproduct of Addison’s disease; his sense of fun extended to humiliating his wife on a daily basis; and his missile crisis heroics were merely resolving a crisis he created with a disastrous Cuba policy—the missiles of October were placed in Cuba by the Ruskies to prevent a second unprovoked, Kennedy-backed invasion of the small island.

But we didn’t know any of this when three shots (yes, three) rang out 1,036 days into his term. All we saw was heroic King Arthur saving us from nuclear annihilation, and then, with the speed of a supersonic bullet, it was over. JFK’s violent death in the broad Dallas daylight (coupled with the largely forgotten death of heroic cop J.D. Tippit, and the knee-jerk murder of their killer two days later) whipsawed us back into the old universe, where a glum, humorless LBJ now presided and was soon sending many of our teenaged pals (not to mention between 1 and 2 million Vietnamese) to their deaths in a faraway Asian jungle. How could a generation be expected to handle such trauma?

Unable to cope with this violent tear in the Zeitgeist, exaggerated by the governmental secrecy that permeated the investigation into King Arthur’s dethroning, we mourned until February of 1964, when four British rockers, gifted of not only talent but amazing timing, let us know that it was okay to have fun again—and they would show us how. But even they couldn’t completely heal the wound.

Kennedy’s entrance onto the scene inspired many young adults to join government, while his exit did just the opposite: Young people began turning against the government en masse. Just a year earlier most male teens wanted to join the CIA and be America’s James Bond, a favorite literary character of JFK’s, but overnight, the Agency became the enemy. When Kennedy’s “best and brightest” encouraged a more malleable president to escalate the war in Southeast Asia, the youth revolution was engaged big time. The turnabout pitted patriotic WWII vets and their kids against one another. It was ugly, and some familial rifts were never repaired. To this day, conspiracy theorists, fueled by the global soapbox for crazies called the Internet, regale their followers with “evidence” that the FBI, CIA, Pentagon, Secret Service, Texas oilmen, LBJ, French assassins, Wall Street swindlers, the mob, Clay Shaw, George H. W. Bush, and even Jackie were involved in the crime, which Jack’s brother Bobby covered up. The 50th anniversary of JFK’s death will be emptying the loony bins of so-called experts trying to make a buck by turning Americans against each other in one last Dallas-inspired onslaught.

In truth, Kennedy’s and Tippit’s killer hated America, and he was more successful in harming it than he even dreamed—not to mention that Mrs. Kennedy, Mrs. Tippit, and Mrs. Oswald were now widowed mothers raising seven fatherless children.

Thanks for nothing, Lee Harvey Oswald, you bastard.

Caitlin Vincent

Soprano, Camelot Requiem librettist, 28

Fifty years later, both of my parents remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they learned of President Kennedy’s assassination. For those of us born decades afterward, however, it’s difficult to view John F. Kennedy’s death as more than an entry in a high-school history book. We know we should remember, and we know we should mourn what was lost, but we can’t help feeling disconnected from the reality of what happened.

When I wrote the libretto for the opera Camelot Requiem, my goal was to somehow bring the events of that day into focus. Instead of describing Kennedy himself, I decided to portray those who were closest to him—his personal staff, colleagues, and family—and explore the unique way in which his death affected each of them as individuals. When The Figaro Project premiered the opera last May (with 10 Baltimore-based opera singers, all under the age of 32), I hoped the audience would be moved by the story we were telling. But, even before opening night, I knew the piece had had a profound and lasting effect on the performers. The opera had become an artistic bridge between generations, allowing us to connect with a tragedy and a time in American experience far beyond the reach of our own memories.

In 40 years, there will be only a few people alive who remember what the world was like before President Kennedy’s assassination. Forty years after that, there will be only a few people alive who remember what the world was like before the Twin Towers fell. Between now and then, I know this country and this world will experience many more tragedies and many more days that make the history books and change the world forever. My only hope is that there will still be artists, musicians, and, yes, librettists to be inspired by these events and create their own bridges to past generations.

Richard Vatz

Mass Communications professor, Towson University, 66

President John F. Kennedy’s assassination was a considerable shock to a nation and to its youth, who viewed assassination as unthinkable. No one knew that such a preeminent voice in American leadership could be silenced so easily, though his values and words continued to resonate.

My field encompasses political persuasion and political speeches, and this is where President Kennedy excelled. Look, for example, at two of his most memorable and consequential speeches: the 1961 inaugural address and his 1963 speech at American University. His inaugural address was a brilliant tour de force, mixing Cold War-era toughness with an articulation of American values. He stated clearly that the strength and resolve of the United States should not be doubted: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” And in the most memorable line of his inaugural, President Kennedy decried dependency and praised the individualism that has historically made America great: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

JFK also knew how to rhetorically advance peaceful positions with fewer misperceptions of our primary enemy, the Soviet Union. In a brilliant speech at American University after the Cuban missile crisis, he offered a bilateral nuclear test treaty to the Soviets in the spirit of changing the prevailing atmosphere of mistrust. He also said we must not fall into the “trap” of seeing conflict as inevitable and the Soviets as without virtue: “No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue.” This was quite consistent with his inaugural admonition, “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”

Kennedy was a great rhetorical president, exhibiting great American values and resolve.

Elijah Cummings

United States House of Representatives, 7th District, 62

When President Kennedy instructed our nation to “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country,” countless people from Baltimore and communities large and small across America responded to that call to action with a strong commitment to serve. During a time when hatred and vitriol seemed to be woven into the fabric of our country, President Kennedy spoke to our humanity and reminded us of our responsibility to build up one another and to help those in need. That pillar of public service remains alive today—demonstrated by the young person who decides to delay her career to volunteer for the Peace Corps, which President Kennedy founded, or by a retiree who spends his days teaching in an after-school program. President Kennedy changed the trajectory of our country by reinvigorating us with a spirit of service.

Sanford Ungar

President, Goucher College, 68

I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, the son of immigrant parents from Central Europe for whom the American Dream was a vivid, if modest, reality. I was raised to believe that our country was not just exceptional, but as flawless as any could ever be—to trust that our system of government, embodied by everyone from the policeman at the school crossing to the highest officials of the land, would protect us from any evil that might come our way.

The assassination of President Kennedy represented, for me and for many other naïve members of my generation, the abrupt end of such illusions. It not only disrupted our lives, but also caused us to question our idealism.

I was in my college dining hall at Harvard when I heard the news from Dallas. I immediately got on my bicycle and rode to the office of our daily campus newspaper, The Crimson, where I stayed for 20 hours and helped produce a special edition and the next day’s paper. Because JFK was a relatively young alumnus of our college—he’d not yet celebrated his 25th reunion—we felt a special connection to him and a duty to chronicle precisely what had happened. Those of us at The Crimson were fortunate, in a sense, to have an outlet for expressing the feelings of devastation we shared with everyone around us. But it could not take away the sense that we had reached an unwelcome turning point in our young lives.

Burt Kummerow

President, Maryland Historical Society, 73

I was in my first year of graduate school, studying classical history at the University of Maryland, College Park. I was also a dorm proctor and still involved with the weekend shenanigans of my fraternity. That Friday, we were all gearing up for parties and, as I drove my Corvair into a gas station, the first announcement came over the car radio. The only information was that the President had been shot in Dallas, but I can vividly recall the whole scene—the gray day and the tangle of retail sprawl along University Boulevard. I drove back to the fraternity row and found everyone glued to the black-and-white television images as news trickled in. Walter Cronkite’s announcement, delivered with controlled passion, became the image of the day. My other vivid memory is the following Sunday when I had my TV turned on in my dorm room. Walking into the room, I watched in disbelief as Lee Harvey Oswald was shot dead. For the first time, we witnessed a whole series of national tragedies on live television.

The so-called “happy days” of my young adulthood were filled with paradoxes. Yes, it was an innocent time in many ways, but the threat of nuclear war was always hanging around. The two weeks of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 had the feel of Armageddon. For me, that event, pre-Vietnam, marked the beginning of the modern television news era. In our 24/7 full color news cycle today, it’s hard to imagine everyone peering at the grainy, faint images of talking heads, sometimes with blinds drawn to block out a bright day.

Stephen Hunter

Novelist, 67, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of The Third Bullet

Lee Harvey Oswald is my father. I wish I had a better one, someone noble, kind, self-sacrificing, and wise. But no, I’m stuck with the surly, creepy lout who pulled the trigger three times on November 22, 1963 and turned everybody’s world upside down, though mine, as it worked out, turned right side up.

His legacy to me was the conspiracy. Whether or not he authored one is open to doubt, but it is certain that his sloppiness, stupidity, and banality left large holes in the official narrative and smart guys were quick to see the possibilities. The first, of course, were the anti-Warren Commission agitators, who dominated the publishing world for 10 years. Between sorry Lee and slippery Mark Lane, the conspiracy, as a literary conceit and as a believable construct, was validated.

That’s where I come in, as have dozens, even hundreds of other thriller writers. I’ve waded in those murky waters for 33 years now, coming up with all matter of devious gambits, suppressed coincidences, and outsized egos to justify such concoctions on the 350-page scale. To be sure, conspiracies had existed as fuel for fiction before: Richard Condon’s great The Manchurian Candidate is one such, fondly remembered. But Lee Harvey Oswald took the conceit and injected it with steroids, filmed it in Technicolor, and added a $50-million f/x budget. Twenty-two books later, I have lived happily ever after, even if no one else has.

Freeman A. Hrabowski III

President, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Nineteen sixty-three was a very significant year for America, and, for black children in the Deep South, the year was even more momentous. As a 12-year-old in Birmingham, I participated in the Children’s March led by Dr. King and other civil rights leaders, and as a result, spent five days in jail. After that march, our families were more hopeful than ever as we saw that for the first time, people were talking about black children having the same rights as other children—to drink out of the same water fountains, to go to the same movie theatres, to attend better schools with more resources.

We all remembered how supportive President Kennedy had been in words and actions during the Children’s March. As 1963 continued, we witnessed the integration of the University of Alabama, for which the National Guard was mobilized. We watched people march on Washington to ask for jobs and basic rights. We saw the bombing of the church and the killing of my friends, the “four little girls.” Through all of these experiences, John F. Kennedy was our president. For the first time in my life, I could be proud to have a president who believed I deserved to be treated like any other human. He represented for all of us the best of humanity, someone who cared about other peoples’ children.

As I sat in my 10th grade social studies class, now 13 years old, I found myself stunned, sickened, and shaken to the core when the teacher announced with great emotion that our president, John F. Kennedy, had been killed. And for the rest of that day, we all simply cried. I will never forget the grief and despair that one sensed all around us in our school and in our community. He had been the source of hope we had been searching for, a symbol of enlightened power—someone willing to do the right thing and who cared about all Americans, even little Negro children.

It was a pivotal moment in America, as devastating as any in our history. It was a time when we as a nation had to decide who we were. What a shame that it sometimes takes tragedy to remind us that we are all the same.

Lea Gilmore

Vocalist, civic activist, former deputy director of ACLU Maryland

There they were again. As a young girl, I looked up on the wall of my great aunt’s house in Rockingham, N.C. and saw the trinity of framed pictures that were in the homes of seemingly all my older relatives: Jesus, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and President John F. Kennedy.

Although I was not born at the time of President Kennedy’s assassination, his life and death had a profound impact on many black families, including mine. My family members would often discuss where they were, and what they were doing when they heard of Kennedy's death, just as my generation reminisces on the immense tragedy of September 11, 2001.

This year, our country commemorates 50 years since that dark day in Dallas, and it is coincidentally the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which was organized by, among others, Bayard Rustin (an openly gay, black advocate who brought the teachings of Gandhi to the Movement) and led by Dr. King. Although Kennedy is often lauded for his civil rights record (which I believe should be the legacy of President Lyndon Johnson), Kennedy was actually hesitant about the march, its implications, and the possible fallout.

So what is Kennedy’s legacy to me? It is one of humanity—that great men, like him and Dr. King, should not be deified, but known for all of their human strengths and weaknesses. This knowledge gives us the inspiration to know that we, too, can do great things. We can make real, positive change living in this skin of imperfection and knowing there is perfection in trying. The perception and reality of President Kennedy’s accomplishments and fallibilities is a human story. I am critical of many of his actions and grateful for his journey towards justice. As President Kennedy once stated “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

Elaine Eff

Folklorist, author of The Painted Screens of Baltimore: An Urban Folk Art Revealed

In addition to the visual memory of the spot where the news reached me—in Forest Park High School, under the clock in the entry hall at the close of school—I more recently learned that John Oktavec, a close friend and descendant of the man whose creativity ignited by own life's work, was born following the assassination and named for the fallen president.

Keiffer J. Mitchell, Jr.

Maryland House of Delegates, 44th District, 46

I wasn’t born when Kennedy was around, but there’s a famous story in my family. My grandmother was a civil rights attorney in the ’50s and ’60s. Kennedy called her house to inquire about some things that were taking place, and she was in the bathtub. My uncle, who was 5 or 6, answered the phone and had this conversation with Kennedy. He was trained to say, “Who’s calling?” The caller said, “This is John Kennedy. Can I speak to Juanita Mitchell?” He replied, “She can’t get to the phone; she’s in the bathtub.” As my grandmother scrambled to get out of the tub, my uncle had this little conversation with Kennedy about how old he was and where he went to school—just a normal conversation with John Kennedy.

Growing up and learning about the Kennedys, this was a family that kind of brought majesty to the Presidency. But Kennedy also had a very self-deprecating humor. He didn’t take himself too seriously, which reminded me of one of the things my uncle [Clarence Mitchell III] said, “Always remember, you put your pants on one leg at a time like everyone else.” That even extends to the way in which he was assassinated, because the Secret Service advised him to not ride in an open car, but he wanted to do that.

I remember sitting in school years later and our teacher showing us the actual news reports with Walter Cronkite breaking in on the soap opera that was playing at the time. We were watching this video in middle school and were very much riveted as if we were there. We were all very affected by Cronkite saying Kennedy had died. Seeing the video of the funeral procession—I remember bagpipes and marching drums—really had an impact. As someone who grew up in a political family, here was a young person—who was vibrant, with young kids—and he was assassinated. I remember the youngest, John John, didn’t even realize what happened. That had a big impact on me.

Kennedy’s influence was a call to service to young people—the torch had been handed to another generation. It wasn’t just politics, but also civil rights and public service. Under his administration, there was this idealism. You had young people in their 20s or 30s who were key advisors to him. You had young people dropping out of college to be apart of the Peace Corps. There was the sort of idealism and innocence I don’t think you will see again.

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