I was one of those alive on Nov. 22, 1963, a 10-year-old student in Mrs. Miller’s fifth grade class. That day turned out to be memorable for me on many levels as, years later, another student in that class became my wife. Betty and I can now look back to one day on which we both know where we were all those years ago.
In the 50 years that followed, the assassination has resonated with me in many other ways, as well as I’ve been a history junkie since, well, the fifth grade. Back then, I’d hear many older Americans saying they could remember exactly what they were doing and where on three dates: Pearl Harbor, the death of FDR, and now a third, the murder of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Few events have been so universally remembered since, with the obvious exception of 9/11. Even moments like the first moon landing now seem like fleeting footnotes in our collective memories.
But before Neil Armstrong took “one small step for man” in 1969, a moment when our world briefly celebrated a peaceful accomplishment, the death of JFK was the first of a series of violent acts that rocked the ’60s. Within a few short years, both Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were senselessly gunned down. Riots centering on civil rights and Vietnam inspired Congress to set up hearings to investigate why America had become so violent. Then and now, the scapegoat was the media, especially network television. But I became puzzled as to why Americans’ views of history were so narrow.
In particular, the conspiracy theories about the death of JFK all seemed to suggest that a mythical figure could not have been lost merely due to the trigger finger of a small-time loser. For such a catastrophic event as the death of a president, organized crime, the CIA, LBJ, or Castro had to be involved. We’d forgotten that although there had been a conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, Presidents Garfield and McKinley were killed by lone gunmen. In the first case, the shooter was an deranged office seeker, in the second an anarchist. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Reagan were nearly killed by similar threats, and Gerald Ford was nearly murdered twice in the same month by unrelated female shooters. In short, America has a long history of disaffected citizens acting on their own, but for some reason many want something larger than life to be behind Nov. 22, 1963.
Speaking of Garfield and McKinley, it’s worth noting that these are two deaths now seemingly lost to history. Even in 1963, quick comparisons between the deaths of Lincoln and Kennedy were drawn, with nary a mention of the murdered presidents in between. We’ve forgotten that one generation lived through the murders of three presidents. In fact, Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of Abraham, was close at hand for all three killings. There are just as many “might have beens” for the presidencies of Garfield and McKinley, but their possible legacies are apparently just too remote for the generations living today. Still, in the latter half of the 19th century when many Americans lived through three presidential assassinations, was America more or less violent than it was in the 1960s?
One discussion I’ve heard this week is the city of Dallas belatedly coming to terms with its reputation as the place where Kennedy was shot. I’m not sure this is true. I recall moving to Big D in the late ’70s and it was quickly obvious natives were indeed nervous about outsiders cruelly blaming them for the shots from Oswald’s rifle. There was a flinching, a sad resentment from people I met who felt the city was known only for Nov. 22. If you were a tourist, there was Dealey Plaza, the Kennedy Memorial, and nothing else.
But, from what I could see, the 1970s became a time when Dallas started to become known for much more. For one thing, Tom Landry and Roger Staubach were leading a football team that repeatedly contended for the Super Bowl and was dubbed “America’s Team.” For another, in 1978 a TV series called Dallas became synonymous with the oil boom of north Texas centered in the “Metroplex” of Dallas and Fort Worth. Then and now, Americans knew well the TV theme composed by Jerrold Immel, and the most discussed shooting victim in TV history wasn’t JFK anymore, but J.R. Ewing. Tourists coming to Dallas these days are just as likely to want to see Southfork and the view of Dallas from Reunion Tower, as well as the Texas Book Depository. With George W. Bush’s library now open at SMU, Dallas has two presidential legacies within its borders.
In short, the many tributes and remembrances this week come from perspectives that are often poignant, very personal, and vital. But history’s scope has a wider vista than the impact of one tragic Friday in 1963. Of course, we should never forget. But we should remember so much else as well.