Vicarious Remembrance and the Legacy of JFK

jfk-changeFifty years ago today, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated as his motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, on its way to a lunch at the Dallas Trade Mart. Few historical events can hold such a stark and ghastly place in Americans’ memories. However, because over 60% of Americans were not alive on November 22, 1963, the majority of us can only understand this tragic event vicariously. I’m one of them.

Born in the 1980’s, my memory of what happened on that fateful day in Dallas is formed solely through the memories of others. Stories I’ve heard, old TV clips, history books, old newspaper clippings, documentaries and films are all I have to go on. Nonetheless, JFK’s legacy lives on through these stories; and while I’m sure recounting them pours salt on old wounds for many of you who were alive, you still tell them. You tell them because those of us who weren’t alive need to hear them. You tell them because it’s a part of our history that should never be forgotten. You pass your stories on to the generations who came after you because you must; because you know that we can never forget. And while I can’t speak for everyone who falls into the “too young to remember” category, I know I appreciate it. It’s this appreciation that drives me to tell some of your stories, in the hopes that other people my age will be able to comprehend the emotional wounds that still stab at you today. Wounds still fresh, even after 50 years.

The first story is my mother’s. She has told it to me many times, but I called her today and asked her to tell it again. She was 7 years old and was walking home from school along the Horace Harding Expressway in Queens, NY, when people started shouting that the President had been shot. Being only 7 she couldn’t fully comprehend it, but she remembers sitting around watching the TV and people crying, distraught, completely beside themselves.

The next story is my father’s. I could feel the raw emotion coming through the phone when he told me it. For him, it was like it had just happened this morning. He was 8 years old and was in school at Radcliffe Rd. Elementary School in Island Park, NY. He couldn’t remember exactly what time it was, but he remembers that everyone was brought into the auditorium. After a few minutes, the loudspeaker came on, and Principal Lynch made an announcement over the loudspeaker that the President had been shot. Nobody wanted to believe he was dead, but maybe they already knew. After the announcement school was dismissed early. He ran home, got his bicycle and rode up the temple. When he got there it was closed and he remembers being annoyed about it. He told me that people were crying all over town because they looked up to JFK and believed in his vision for America. Even though as an 8-year-old he couldn’t fully comprehend that a President could be assassinated, the emotions that came over him when reliving the story were just as raw today. To my father, JFK was,  “The first modern day superhero.”

I asked the fans of my Facebook page to tell their stories as well. Here are some of them. Feel free to tell your own in the comments.

  • Reynolds A.: “I was in school in now what I realize must have been second grade but the event was SO shocked into my memory by the loudspeaker announcement that I remember it so vividly that I thought I must have been older (more like fifth grade).”
  • Betty Jo T.: “I remember that awful day. I was living in Sevilla, Spain with my Air Force husband. A friend came over and said turn on the radio, the President has been assassinated. We listened to that sad news on Armed Forces radio.”
  • Barbara P.: “High school history class. We didn’t believe our teacher when he came in to give the news.”
  • Ronald W.: “I was two days short of my 21st birthday, awaiting separation from the US Navy, in Norfolk, VA. I couldn’t believe the others at the barracks when they told me the President had been shot.”
  • Cheryl K.: “I had just started my junior year of high school and was in modern dance gym class at Berkeley High School in CA. We were dismissed to get dressed and report to home room where we were dismissed to go home. My husband was a freshman at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln where he ran track. He had worked on Kennedy’s campaign in St Louis, MO where he grew up.”
  • R Erik P.: “Third grade in Eugene, OR. I somehow thought (as was written in the original Constitution) that the loser of the election was VP and that Nixon became president. Didn’t know about Johnson (even though he shook my hand a few years before when he was Senator). Too early to understand politics and Pres/VP tickets at the time (and didn’t know about the Amendment allowing for such).
  • Frank M.: “6th grade, Catholic School in Hawaii, remember so much from that Thanksgiving Week. It’s like the nation went right off the road into a cornfield and only some remember where and what the road was.”
  • Bernadette F.: “I was 4 years old, yet I remember it vividly. I remember being at my Grandparent’s house and they, and my parents, aunts & uncles & I were all dressed up and on our way to church. As a Catholic family, we took it very hard. We were so proud to have a Catholic as president, and when he was killed, it was crushing.”
  • Charlotte S.: “I was 11 on that day in 1963 – was coming home from school in Maracaibo, Venezuela with other American kids – our chauffeur, Louis, cried out in shock – and we all listened as the announcement came over the radio that JFK had been shot. Louis was visibly shaken and crying – the Venezuelan people were very fond of the Kennedys. I knew nothing of politics or presidents at that age – but the impact of that moment has never been forgotten.
  • Sloopy D.: “It was the day after my 11th birthday. I was in my 6th grade class. There was a knock on the classroom door & my teacher answered it. He got this look of dismay & shock & ran to his desk, opened a drawer and pulled out his transistor radio & turned it on. Then told us what had happened. That morning President Kennedy had been in Fort Worth (where we were) giving a speech & we had listened to it on the radio. We listened to the radio the rest of the day very somber & upset. That night I was having a slumber party for my birthday. I can remember sitting in the living room while others played around me looking at the headline on the newspaper.”
  • Debbie R.: “I have a vivid memory of that sad day. I was in the third grade in Beaumont. It was a day I will never forget.”
  • Ken V.: “It was like the feelings during 9/11, shock, sadness, dismay, anger immobilizing. Everything shut down the next day and the day of the funeral.”
  • Shari B.: “I was in second grade. There was a knock at our door. Our principle was there. My teacher burst into tears when she was told. I watched the funeral . School was out.”

JFK and his vision for a better future and a better America lives on today. It does so because those of you who were alive in 1963 continue to tell your stories. It is your stories that help all us to understand how JFK inspired a country. And knowing this allows all of us to continue in our fight for the very things JFK fought and likely died for: equal rights, increased unemployment compensation, international diplomacy, an end to poverty, a higher minimum wage, a broader Federal housing program, education, safer working conditions, and economic opportunity.

Ilyssa Fuchs

Ilyssa Fuchs is an attorney, freelance writer, and activist from New York City, who holds both a juris doctor and a political science degree. She is the founder of the popular Facebook page Politically Preposterous and a blog of the same name. Follow Ilyssa on Twitter @IlyssaFuchs, and be sure to check out her archives on Forward Progressives as well!


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