I reminisce and reflect on my experience from exactly 50 years ago today.
On that infamous Friday, I was working at my desk at home, writing my master’s thesis on teaching Shakespeare, and listening to the radio. Without the usual fanfare which even then attended interruptions to report trivia, the music suddenly stopped, and the announcer’s voice intoned, as I recall his words, “We interrupt this program with a bulletin from Dallas: the President has been shot.”
To this day, these words—simple, stark, and direct—still evoke powerful responses.
My parents’ housecleaner, a young black woman who had a charming baby boy, came up the stairs to my room. Sobbing uncontrollably, Henrietta was barely able to see through her tears. She embraced me and wailed, “Oh, what is to become of us now?” I gave her what comfort I could, but no one could but dread what the near-term future would be. Her concerns were not about world war; they were about race relations. “Us” meant “blacks.” Had Kennedy been assassinated outside Dixie, perhaps the sense of threat to blacks and their feelings of despair would have been less. But he was assassinated in Dixie—in Texas; in Dallas, Texas—and his death threatened blacks with the loss of a president who had spoken and acted on their behalf and given them hope. The wonderful irony is that Kennedy’s successor was a Texan, and he acted with a vengeance and a determination and an authority in the use of presidential power to right grievous wrongs. He accomplished what Kennedy could only imagine.
Like many others, no one was prepared for such an atrocious act. America was torn then as it now and perhaps always has been. Kennedy was well intentioned in the area of civil rights; Johnson was effective. America today suffers the same well intentioned but ineffectual leadership on civil rights (and so much more) which it suffered then. The question which I ask myself today is, in matters of civil rights and social caring for the least among us, who is the new Lyndon Baines Johnson?