For my parents’ generation it was the news of Pearl Harbor or the death of President Roosevelt. For the generation just now coming of age it is likely 9/11.
For me, that memory moment is the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
I was a senior in high school when Kennedy was elected. My father, a yellow dog Democrat, liked him, and so did I. Living in a south Alabama county already turning Republican and full of populist Protestants who still harbored doubts about Catholics, we were conspicuous in our support and vindicated in victory. Daddy liked to recall how, after the results were in, some of his turncoat friends called to see if we had any extra Kennedy bumper stickers. Thinking back, those may have been the first bumper stickers I ever saw.
The year after I graduated, I found myself safe in the monastic confines of a military school in the heart of the Black Belt. Although Kennedy was considered “suspect” on civil rights, he was commander in chief and when he forced the Russians to take their missiles out of Cuba, there was general approval on campus.
Then, in the fall of 1963, I entered Birmingham Southern College and found myself among students who followed politics closely. It was in their company, and that of some politically astute professors, that my education as a Southern liberal began.
Almost to a man (and woman), they admired JFK.
It was a heady time to be in college, especially a liberal-leaning college in Birmingham, Ala. — I say “leaning,” for faculty and students at BSC had begun to express doubts about Gov. George Wallace and his efforts to preserve the racial status quo in the state. Some folks didn’t like them doing that and said so.
The spring before I arrived, Birmingham had been rocked by demonstrations and the media was full of pictures of protesters, fire hoses and police dogs. I had only been on campus a few weeks when the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed and four little girls were killed.
Rightly or wrongly, most of my new friends looked upon JFK as the one who could pull us out of this morass.
This was the context in which I was living when, one afternoon, someone banged on my dorm door and cried “the president has been shot.”
The messenger moved from door to door. Word spread fast, and quickly the hall filled with students.
The closest TV was across the Quad, in the lobby of a girl’s dorm. When I arrived, every seat and sofa was turned to the screen. It was standing-room only.
At first, reports were conflicting. Then Walter Cronkite came on.
Just as he did, one of the girls who lived in the dorm pushed through the door and, seeing everyone looking at the TV, turned to see what the commotion was about. Just as she did, Cronkite said, “the president is dead.”
The look on her face was disbelief, followed by the shock of reality. Had someone close to her not grabbed her arm, I am certain she would have collapsed. Then she broke into anguished sobs.
That is my memory. That is the moment on which I hang everything else. Backing up from it, I can recall the banging on the door and the messenger’s cry. Going forward from it, I can remember how classes were canceled, finals were postponed, and how I sat in the student union with a few other students to watch it all unfold. With us was my Latin professor, a crusty old bachelor who had no TV of his own and would never have admitted having one if he did. Together, we watched the black-and-white images of the funeral. The quiet dignity of the widow. The riderless horse with the rider’s boots turned backward in the stirrups. And John-John saluting the flag as he had been taught to do, only this time it was draped on his father’s casket.
I remember crying. And when I looked over at my professor, he was crying, as well.
Sometime later, I heard that after the funeral, one of the Kennedy circle asked another, “Will we ever be happy again?”
“Yes,” was the reply, “but we will never be young again.”
I think I know what he meant. That day, for the first time in my life, at the age of 20, I felt very, very old.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.