We had just returned from watching a play in the school auditorium. It was about Stephen Foster and his music. I remember it vividly.
We were settling back in to our desks in that fourth-grade classroom, under the watchful gaze of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln above the chalkboard, when our teacher, a bit ashen in the face, came in and said, “Class, President Kennedy has been shot.”
Cheers erupted. I remember that vividly, too.
She disappeared. The room was abuzz. A few minutes later she reappeared.
“Class, the president is dead,” she said.
Some of the girls started to cry.
In a matter of minutes, the worst and best of human nature were evident in that group of 9-year-olds.
• • •
If you are in your late 50s or beyond, you remember, too. You remember where you were, what you were doing, how you reacted when you heard what had happened 50 years ago this coming Friday.
Not since Pearl Harbor had one event stopped the nation in its tracks like the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963. Unlike Pearl Harbor, this was a television event.
For the first time ever, the nation sat mesmerized before its television sets – which only recently had permeated American households – for four solid days. Friday, the news of the assassination and the return to Andrews Air Force Base after nightfall of Jackie Kennedy in her blood-stained dress. A brief speech to the nation from the runway by the new president, Lyndon Johnson. On Saturday, the continually developing story of the man arrested, Lee Harvey Oswald. On Sunday, his murder in the Dallas police station on live TV. On Monday, the funeral with the heads of state, the grieving young widow and the salute of the casket from 3-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr.
These images are seared into the consciousness of the people who witnessed them as they unfolded on the flickering gray screens of the day.
On Friday, the Daily Journal will recount some memories of our readers of those days and recall how it was back then for a nation reeling from shock, sorrow and for a while, at least, fear.
• • •
When our teacher returned, it was clear, even to fourth graders, that the adults in charge of us didn’t quite know what to do. The weather was decent, so we were sent outside to the playground while they tried to figure it out. Eventually they called our parents and let us out of school early.
For a few hours at least, it was like 9/11 would be many years later: waiting for the other shoe to drop. Some thought it might be a precursor to a Soviet missile attack, that the assassination was the first strike in a broader assault on the nation. As that apprehension subsided, the shock and disbelief didn’t.
The children who cheered at the initial news reflected the tenor of the times in Oxford, where I was in school, and elsewhere in Mississippi. They were reflexively parroting what they had heard at home. Kennedy was hated by many white Mississippians, especially after he sent federal troops to enforce the enrollment of James Meredith and the integration of Ole Miss. The reaction in my class was not unlike others across the state I’ve heard about through the years.
That’s unfathomable to many people, whatever their political persuasion, who hear about it today. Nevertheless, it’s the way it was.
Of course most Mississippians, whatever they thought of Kennedy, didn’t react that way. And there was redemption when those tears came in that classroom. I’ll remember forever all those moments on that Friday, but that’s the one I’d take over all the others.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.