President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas 50 years ago today remains current news among many people because it has been kept alive by an unending compulsion of some Americans to seek answers different from those already provided.
President Kennedy, of course, was not the only high-profile victim of an assassin’s bullet in that tumultuous, sometimes chaotic decade of the 1960s.
Kennedy was the second major American figure cut down in 1963. Medgar Evers, head of the Mississippi arm of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was killed in June outside his Jackson home.
As the civil rights movement became a full-throated struggle against the status quo of segregation and the angrily unpopular Vietnam War diverted the complacency of a generation, unrest was never far from visible.
An assassin’s violence struck twice more among high-profile Americans:
• The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., icon of the civil rights movement, was killed by a sniper in Memphis in April 1968.
• Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-N.Y., brother of the slain president, seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968, was shot by an assassin on June 5, and died the following day. He had just won the Democratic delegate primary in California.
The nation struggled to make sense of what it was becoming. Answers were not easy to find and define. The slow end of the Vietnam War in the 1970s defused that part of the nationwide unrest, and civil rights made progress behind a wall of strong laws breaking the will of the old segregationist order in the South.
However, violence struck and protection of high-ranking officials was called into question again in 1981, when President Ronald Reagan was gravely wounded by a would-be assassin outside a Washington hotel where he had attended an event.
He survived and recovered, but the demand for ever greater security around public figures, public events and in public places visibly altered Americans’ access to leadership and institutions.
An unfinished era of terrorism, primarily against Western nations, particularly the United States, defined the next responses: wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with full outcomes undetermined.
Whatever Americans once believed about the end of violence, political and individual, was shattered by the assassinations of the 1960s.
We still seek an equilibrium that is continually reassuring.