“I remember where I was when…” Most baby boomers can still tell you exactly where they were when they heard President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. That November day in Dallas, TX changed the landscape of the country for years to come. United States’ history had long been built on the idea of “American exceptionalism.” According to us, all countries looked up to and wanted to be like the USA. The Kennedys were the poster children for this ideal in the early 1960’s. John Fitzgerald Kennedy hailed from a powerful Northeastern family and had the looks, charisma and background to be the head of “Camelot.” His family was young, beautiful, and decidedly American. JFK’s presidency became the first to have an official White House photographer and the images taken from his time in office adorned every major US magazine. These were the glory days, even as the country struggled with Vietnam, an untenable racial situation and the burden of the Cold War and the “Soviet Menace.”
And then November 22, 1963 happened…
The murder of JFK ripped the golden blinders off of the nation and exposed a stark reality. No one was safe. Despite the fact that American history is rife with violence against brother, neighbor and stranger, somehow a large number of the country saw no real issues. In the middle of segregation, war and internal strife, there was a patriotic cloud that covered the eyes of Americans who were either on the fence in regards of those issues or blissfully unaware. There are myriad conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination, which will not be named here. Kennedy’s proposed Civil Rights Act is often seen as one of the reasons he was killed. The following are few of the bloody events that happened from that point in November through the rest of the decade:
1964 June 21: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, Freedom Summer activists, are abducted and killed by the KKK in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
1965 March 7: Bloody Sunday: In Selma, Alabama nonviolent activists begin their march from Selma to Montgomery in protest for the right to vote. After they cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge they are attacked by state troopers.
March 11: Rev. James Reeb, a volunteer marcher from Boston, is beaten to death in Selma,Alabama.
August 11: a riot breaks out in Watts, an African-American suburb of Los Angeles, California, after a fight erupts between a white traffic officer and an African-American man accused of drinking and driving. The officer arrests the man and some of his family members who had arrived at the scene. Rumors of police brutality, however, result in six days of rioting in Watts. Thirty-four people, mostly African Americans, die during the riot.
1966 June 6: James Meredith embarks on a "March Against Fear" from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, to encourage black Mississippians to register to vote. Near Hernando, Mississippi, Meredith is shot. Others take up the march, joined on occasion by King.
1967 July: riots break out in northern cities, including Buffalo, New York, Detroit, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey.
1968 April 4: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated at the Loraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee, fighting for the rights of sanitation workers.
1968 June 5: Robert F. Kennedy is shot at close range in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after winning the state primary race for presidential candidacy. The following day he was pronounced dead and the nation mourned.
1969 December 4: Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther party, is shot and killed by police during a raid. A federal grand jury refutes the police's assertion that they fired upon Hampton only in self-defense, but no one is ever indicted for Hampton's killing.1964 June 21: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, Freedom Summer activists, are abducted and killed by the KKK in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
Granted, these events would have likely happened whether Kennedy was alive or not. The point is the assassination (along with the murder of four children in 16th Street Baptist Church months earlier) caused people to accept that maybe their country wasn’t as perfect as they once thought. The country experienced these other instances and emerged changed and inquisitive about the real direction of their home. We were unable to run from the hard truths of our history and standing in the world. Maybe….just maybe the “Greatest country in the world” still had growing to do.
Kennedy was not the only one who died on November 22, 1963. The “innocence” of America expired as well.
Ahmad Ward is the Head of Exhibitions and Education at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute