November 22, 1963 is one of those dates ingrained in our memory, if we were alive and aware of the world around us at the time.
On Thursday, the 21st, we had a good idea where we were headed, individually and collectively. By that sunny Friday afternoon, we didn’t. The days to follow brought more death, fear, confusion and questions. By the Thanksgiving dinner on the following Thursday, I remember being simply thankful to be alive.
Do you remember where you were? Do you recall what you felt that day and throughout the next week? Did the assassination and subsequent events propel you to action or change your mind about your plans for the future? Today, almost 50 years later, what is the legacy of that historic date?
I remember the turmoil more than the details, but I know I was a few minutes into a mind-numbing mega-lecture on world history in a ground-floor room in the library of the University of Maryland-College Park. Our TA ran in and yelled that the president had been shot. Students recoiled in shock. The professor stammered around a few minutes then reluctantly gave us a 10-minute break, which gave everyone a chance to spill out on the mall to search for more information. The J-school was just next door and some journalism students brought out wire copy. Others had news from televisions scattered around campus. Eventually, we filed back into the lecture hall and the prof restarted. She said something like, "Will they never learn the lessons of history?" One by one, everyone in the hall got up and walked out.
By the time I got back to downtown DC, Kennedy had died and fear had gripped the city. Flags were being lowered. Telephone lines were clogged. The empty streets and sidewalks were you all you needed to see to understand how frightened people were.
I should mention that, at the time, many Washingtonians saw Texas as a lawless, awful place. Anything and anyone coming out of it was suspect, including Lyndon Johnson. Was he to blame for this? Did he lust after the presidency so much that he hired an assassin to eliminate Kenney? Or was this the first step of an invasion, the prelude to a coup? Would Russian troops be on the National Mall the next morning? Would other leaders be taken out by snipers?
The world was truly upside down. Obviously, no one was safe. No one could be protected, even a president. Nothing was safe, nothing was sacred and there might be nothing between ordinary people like me and a totalitarian takeover. For a newly married 19-year-old, November 22 presented a watershed moment, perhaps the first truly adult moment in my young life.
Birds on a Wire Blog looks back at that fateful day and week through a series of posts published four years ago. See what some of your friends remember. Read an eyewitness account written by a young television cameraman assigned to the Dallas parade and courthouse. And read the inaugural speech that became the mantra for an entire generation.
Please share your memories and thoughts with us. Hit Comments in the upper-right corner of this post to join the conversation.
Vice President Johnson, Mr. Speaker, Mr. Chief Justice, President Eisenhower, Vice President Nixon, President Truman, reverend clergy, fellow citizens, we observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom—symbolizing an end, as well as a beginning—signifying renewal, as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago.
The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.
We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
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.
This much we pledge—and more.
To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do—for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.
To those new States whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom—and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.
To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required—not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.
To our sister republics south of our border, we offer a special pledge—to convert our good words into good deeds—in a new alliance for progress—to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty. But this peaceful revolution of hope cannot become the prey of hostile powers. Let all our neighbors know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas. And let every other power know that this Hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house.
To that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations, our last best hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace, we renew our pledge of support—to prevent it from becoming merely a forum for invective—to strengthen its shield of the new and the weak—and to enlarge the area in which its writ may run.
Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.
We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.
But neither can two great and powerful groups of nations take comfort from our present course—both sides overburdened by the cost of modern weapons, both rightly alarmed by the steady spread of the deadly atom, yet both racing to alter that uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of mankind's final war.
So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.
Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.
Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms—and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations.
Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.
Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah—to "undo the heavy burdens ... and to let the oppressed go free."
And if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved.
All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.
In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.
Now the trumpet summons us again—not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are—but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, "rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation"—a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.
Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort?
In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it—and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.
My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.
For a video of the entire speech, go here:
Birds reader and fellow blogger George Phenix was 25 and barely a month into a job as cameraman for (then) CBS-affiliate KRLD-TV on November 22, 1963, when he was assigned to cover President Kennedy’s Dallas visit. As the President's motorcade wound its way into the heart of the city, Phenix planted himself along the parade route and waited.
Today, Phenix, who publishes Blog of Ages, lives in North Carolina.
My news director, Eddie Barker, divided us into teams of reporters to cover the JFK trip to Dallas. I helped George Sanderson film Air Force One landing at Love Field. Bob Huffaker picked up coverage as the procession rolled past welcoming crowds lining the curb along Main Street -- toward the triple underpass at Dealey Plaza. In the motorcade, we had Jim Underwood riding in one of the press cars.
When the shooting started, I was outside the Trade Mart awaiting the President’s arrival for his noon speech.
Suddenly, sirens wailed from the freeway overpass. Lots of sirens. In the crowd, a woman started crying, “He’s been hit. He’s been hit.” With what? Rock? Bottle? Brick? I never thought rifle fire.
And in that instant, the world changed. The whole damned world.
KRLD served as the home base for the CBS coverage of the assassination, led by Dan Rather. Eddie Barker was first to announce Kennedy’s death, from Parkland Hospital. Two days later, Phenix was sent to the city jail to film the transfer of Lee Harvey Oswald to the county jail. The pictures you have in your mind of Jack Ruby shooting Oswald came from George’s film, now part of our historical memory.
Here is a portion of the deposition George gave in 1964 to federal officials, used as testimony for the Warren Commission inquiry into the assassination.
TESTIMONY OF GEORGE R. PHENIX beginning at 13H123...
The testimony of George R. Phenix was taken at 3:40 p.m., on April 16, 1964, in the office of the U.S. attorney, 301 Post Office Building, Bryan and Ervay Streets Dallas, Tex., by Mr. Leon D. Hubert, Jr., assistant counsel of the President's Commission.
Mr. PHENIX. …I had to have my eyes stuck against the eyepiece in order to see through it. So, from then on, all I saw was Oswald coming down the hallway there, and I didn't actually--I wasn't aware of seeing Ruby step out of the crowd--I knew something had happened and the shot--at the shot somebody came roaring in from my left and almost knocked me down. The unipod was braced on the curb and it slipped down to the main level of the ramp and almost fell, and looking through the eyepiece and over the eyepiece, too, just shooting out of habit really, the camera was running all the time--I followed the action of the policeman wrestling with Ruby--it just happened that they moved to my right.
Mr. HUBERT. Your film, as a matter of fact, is that famous film that catches Ruby moving forward and the wrestling?
Mr. PHENIX. Right; I just saw it once and we were so busy, but I think it was the one where Ruby's hat was in the corner of the opening frame and he steps out.
Mr. HUBERT. You have seen it since, haven't you?
Mr. PHENIX. Oh, yes.
Mr. HUBERT. Did you know Ruby?
Mr. PHENIX. No.
Mr. HUBERT. Had you observed him in the crowd prior to these events?
Mr. PHENIX. I can't remember it. I heard someone say in the crowd after they took Ruby and after Oswald left in the ambulance that it was Jack Ruby, and the name didn't mean a thing to me.
Mr. HUBERT. Did you hear anybody running down the ramp just before the shooting, running down or possibly walking down?
Mr. PHENIX. No, I think if he had been running I would have heard him because the sound just echoes in that basement.
I saw some film, and I'm sure you've seen it too, some of the film that showed Ruby positioned down there, and he looks back where you catch almost a full shot of his face before Oswald comes down, and that anyway--it just looks like he was there for a while.
Mr. HUBERT. Did you hear Ruby say anything?
Mr. PHENIX. No; maybe in the excitement I heard him, but I don't remember hearing this famous quotation about "Jack, you S. O. B."
Mr. HUBERT. You didn't hear anybody; hear anything, including Ruby--anything distinguishable that you now remember?
Mr. PHENIX. The only one I can remember is Bob Huffaker, who is the mike man for our live camera, saying over and over that "He's been shot," and he was calling him "Lee Harold Oswald." I don't know why--and then just in general--a few words.
Mr. HUBERT. You heard him saying, "He's been shot, he's been shot, he's been shot," a number of times? Mr. PHENIX. Yes, and the policemen telling everybody to stand back.
George Phenix and two colleagues recently wrote a book about their experience on November 22, 1963. The Day the News Went Live is available at Amazon. Click here for a fascinating interview with George that aired on Austin’s News 8, in 2003, which includes portions of his famous video.
Christopher Cory, of New York, was working for Time magazine in 1963. He retired recently from many years as a university communications director. Here is his memory of that day:
I was pretty far from the scene and more touched by it later. I’d been living in Washington, DC, learning my trade as a reporter just out of college in the bureau of Time magazine. When the news broke I was in my parents’ living room in Englewood, NJ en route to the Harvard-Yale game in New Haven. Well-drilled in journalism by then, I “called my desk” – the nearest one being in New York City – and was deployed to get reactions in Harlem. That didn’t take too long, since ... most of the news the magazine needed that night was coming from elsewhere.
The next week I was deployed to watch the funeral cortege from the front of the White House but senior correspondents were doing the close ups and the moment passed without stirring huge feelings in me.
The experience did, however, turn out to make me preternaturally alert ever after for scraps of news about any Kennedy family members. Your question makes me realize that they have provided an obbligato of inspiration to the melody of my life. In my [last] job I even once got to introduce myself to Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a professor and vibrant environmental advocate at the law school at Pace, the university where I [was] director of most relations with the media. He handles his own, masterfully.
Karen Holmgren, California
I was at work in an insurance company office [in Wayne NJ] when the announcement came over the PA that the President had been shot but was alive. Everything came to a halt as people looked at each other in shock. Slowly we all resumed our tasks, only to be interrupted a short time later with the news that Kennedy had died and we were given leave to go home. The shock was too big to absorb, but there were tears in many eyes as we made our way out of the building. Our family spent the weekend glued to the television. I was watching when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. It was all so unreal. The funeral procession and services were terribly moving and sad.
I remember all those grainy black and white images of Jackie and the children, Johnson, limousines, crowds, the frequent replay of the shooting event. Black and white - the appropriate way to convey this horrible event. Stark, somber, emotional.
Darlene Costner, Arizona
All I can add to the JFK story is that I was taking movies of my daughter when my husband phoned me with the news. He was a radio station manager and the news had just come down the wire. No one will ever forget where they were or what they were doing when they heard that dreadful news.
Kathleen Scott, Texas
Retired banker, novelist
Hill Country Mysteries
I was eleven years old in 1963. My father was a pilot in the Air Force, in charge of a squadron of small fighter bombers. His mission, in event of threat/attack, was to fly from the air base at Lakenheath, England, where we lived, to defend freedom.
Mom junked the TV when we moved to Europe. News came from BBC radio and the Stars and Stripes newspaper, an American publication which delivered U. S. news 'for the military community' a day or two late, or barely mentioned, if the event didn't mesh with military outlook. We didn't know much about the May riots in Alabama or the August march in Washington.
My world was far more local. I knew the Mods and Rockers were on the rise in Britain. And the Rolling Stones, a loud unknown band, performed at our local fair, free admission. BBC news was taken with British tumults of the times. A major scandal broke in June; Minister of Defense Profumo was sleeping with a call girl who simultaneously 'had relations' with a Russian Embassy attaché. Perfect for blanket coverage--sex, infidelity, lies and spies. Then the Great Train Robbery took place in August and the British Isles were captivated by twelve men and loot equivalent to $7,500,000US.
The phone rang in our home in the evening on November 22nd. My mother was distressed, my father grim-faced. I didn't really know what the death of the President meant. I knew it was bad but it was a remote bad, like a scary Halloween movie. We didn't see footage of the motorcade or the following days of nonstop news coverage.
It didn't seem real. I knew more about Winston Churchill than I did about JFK. Everything about America was remote--the weather, the culture, the President. I didn't know that Kennedy was a man who brought hope. Or that the gunshots which ended his life would reverberate many years hence.
June McNamara, Delaware
Retired human resources director
I was in a political science class at college, and the prof, very emotional, broke the news to us and then dismissed class (as were all of the campus classes). I drove home slowly, in a bit of a fog, watching the other drivers move in that manner as well. When the news was announced that Kennedy had died, many drivers pulled over to the side of the road and just wept. When I got home, the TV was on, and remained on continuously for the next several days as we all followed the world-changing events. Later, watching Lee Harvey Oswald's assassination was surreal.
Antoinette Almaguer, Virginia
Former Peace Corps volunteer and desk officer
I remember sitting in the SUB, the Student Union Building, at the University of New Mexico, where I'd met my sister for lunch. I was a freshman. The television was on and then the news interrupted whatever was on. I felt emptiness in the pit of my stomach and people were shuffling around to get a better look at Walter Cronkite. Tears welled up and I tried hard not to sob. Everyone seemed to be in shock. One of Mary Ann's friends walked up to me, smiled and handed me an ice cream bar. I really didn't know what to do with it. Did I eat it? Could I have done something as ordinary as eat ice cream at that tumultuous moment in history? Five years later Bobby was assassinated and then Martin Luther King. I joined the Peace Corps that summer. It was about altruism. It was a Kennedy thing. Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You .....
In Belize, when invited to someone's home, it was common to see two portraits in their living room: one of Christ, showing palms extended and exposed heart, and the other was the official presidential photo of John Kennedy. We shared respect for a charismatic figure. He inspired many of us to achieve goals which we might not have pursued otherwise. And I can't say I much cared for ice cream bars since then.
Ann Sentilles, Texas
I was a junior in high school in Ohio in November 1963 and presidential assassinations were the stuff of history books, not my life and times. Or so I thought. I was glued to the TV the entire weekend, not really believing what I was seeing. I remember in particular coming home from church that Sunday to learn that Oswald himself had been shot in the basement of the Dallas Police Department and beginning to wonder, in the midst of the added chaos, about the stability and certainty of everything in my life that I had once
believed with all my heart was stable and certain. And that, I think, is the feeling that endured -- in many ways, a loss of childhood innocence and an introduction to tragedy on an epic scale even here and, as it turns out, especially here, in the USA. I had a chance to put the Kennedy Assassination into clearer perspective when I taught my children about it in the context of all that went on in the 60's.
In the truly wonderful Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, they could see what hopes and dreams had been dashed by Kennedy's killing (and those of his brother Bobby and Martin Luther King), and what new hopes and dreams were born in the aftermath and in the activism and rebellion which colored our college years.
I, like so many people, mark the anniversary of the JFK assassination by remembering the exact spot I first heard the news -- crossing a college campus while people around me were sharing/shouting the news. Members of my class marched in Selma, protested the Vietnam War and conspired to enable male students to become ineligible for the draft.
The college I went to did not allow women students to wear "slacks" to class, and we had single-sex dorms (most of the time.) I went on to teach school under the Johnson era "Great Society." In the 60s I was certain that the country could eliminate poverty and racism. When I started teaching, remnants of institutional racism were still evident in some schools in rural VA. However, both black and white children lived in poverty. And class seemed to be a common factor in predicting school success.
Larry Burch, Iowa
I was an electronics instructor at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver, Colorado, and in the break room when one of the technical sergeants entered and stated that the president had been shot in Dallas. We soon learned that the wound was fatal. Everyone I knew was shocked at the news. I was dismayed for a few hours, and then became quite angered that such a thing could happen in the United States in that day and age. It certainly brought an end to the naïveté of my youth.
Linda Tate Huntington, Maryland
Retired health care policy analyst
On the morning of November 22, 1963, the Peace Corps, on the corner of Lafayette Square behind the White House, gave me my first job. Afterward, I walked across the square and one more block to a fancy department store called Garfinkel's. I didn't know, at 22, that one would overpay for mattress covers at fancy stores.
Taking the elevator back to the first floor, I overheard women talking about President Kennedy's having been shot. I laughed in shock, wanting to believe it was some kind of sick joke. I soon verified the news, staggered outdoors, and walked around the block to a bar with a TV.
My sense of security was destroyed. Assassinated was the head of my country and the senator who, just four years earlier, had exhorted my high school class to public service at our graduation ceremony.
Bradford W. O’Hearn, New York
I was talking to the Allentown (PA) head of Pennsylvania Bell about for a non-profit I volunteered for when he said, “I’ve got to go. The phones are going wild. The President has been shot.” My next stop was the offices ofThe Morning Call where I was a reporter. The wire room, comfortable for two or three persons, had about a dozen in it soberly scanning the wires. There was a short hiatus and then five bells sounded; AP’s highest priority. A priest had confirmed the death of the nation’s first Irish Catholic president, and wide open possibilities of Nov. 1960 seemed a lot more constricted to this Irish Catholic.
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