November 22, 1963

Posted on December 1, 2020


Today is the 57th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. More than half a century ago sounds like a lot of time. Maybe this happened back at the end of the Roman Empire, or he was shot on a Crusade, or by the rebels at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Or, given that John Kennedy was a World War II veteran, maybe he was shot while driving his PT boat one dark night off the coast of Guadalcanal during a desperate time of the war, when the balance could have tipped back to the Japanese instead of the beleaguered but aggressive Americans.

But 1963 wasn’t so long ago that I don’t remember it and remember it well.

I put November 22 in the same category that December 7, 1941 represented for my parents, and September 11, 2001 for my older children.

These dates were burned into our memories by things that happened to our nation that shocked us all, perhaps as nothing else in history largely because of modern communications.

In the case of September 11, we watched the first aircraft being driven into the World Trade Center within minutes of the actual event, and I think we saw the second aircraft crash into the tall building as it actually happened, real time.

In the case of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt received the news of a Japanese surprise attack on the fleet of the U. S. Navy moored in their home base in Hawaii, at Pearl Harbor, within minutes of the attack, although it was 1:30 p.m. in Washington. The first wave of Japanese dive bombers struck just before 8 a.m. Hawaii time.

November 22 was a Friday in 1963 and I was in college in North Carolina. It was a wonderful, crisp fall afternoon and I was on my way out to throw a football around with a few friends. As we raced and walked out through the Gothic-style dorms forming the quadrangles at Duke, someone said,

“The President’s been shot!”

We stopped for moment, what did he say?

“Just heard it on the news, Kennedy has been shot.”

We looked at each other and just shrugged it off. Some joker springing a bad joke. After throwing the ball around for a while we returned.

The Quad was eerily quiet. Where was everybody? On a Friday afternoon the Quad was usually humming with activity.

When we got back to our dorm, we learned it wasn’t some jokester. The President had been shot in Dallas, Texas.

By the evening, the awful news was sinking in. Not only had the President been shot in Dallas, but he died on the operating table, his head mutilated and torn apart by bullets. He never had a chance.

All that weekend we were transfixed by the drama unfolding in Dallas, and then Washington, D.C. where his body was flown, accompanied by his widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, still wearing a blood spattered suit, and the Vice President, Lyndon Johnson, who was sworn in as President on Air Force One.

Then sometime Saturday while the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was being transferred from a jail in Dallas, a guy named Jack Ruby pulled out his gun and shot him at close range. The murder happened right in front of us, on television. If we were shocked by the shooting of the President, we were dumfounded by seeing Ruby gun down Oswald.

What’s happening? Normal had been displaced by murder and assassination, gunfire and killing, right in front of us.

We continued to watch the television all weekend as Washington prepared for the state funeral on Monday.

Sunday night three or four of us piled into a car and drove to Washington, arriving sometime before dawn on Monday morning.

We found a place, I think on 16th Street, not far from the White House where we could watch the funeral procession pass by, the riderless horse, Jackie, now in severe black, Bobby Kennedy and the rest of the family. I watched as a phalanx of world leaders, walking side by side, passed us. I recognized what seemed like a giant, Charles de Gaulle of France, and close by an apparent midget, the Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. It was like watching a history documentary come alive.

John Kennedy had his warts and peccadillos, but he didn’t deserve to die that way. Millions saw it like I did, and I sometimes wonder: what did we learn from this tragedy? My cynical side whispers “not much, not much.”

My Christian voice says there is another way. But that voice—so true and pure—is usually soft and gentle and you have to lean into it to hear it, to allow it–as Scripture tells us—to abide in you.

Published as “Shock of Kennedy’s assassination still echoes 57 years later,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, Nov. 22 2020

Posted in: History