Perhaps everyone who was over the age of five at the time remembers the moment.
I was in Dallas, a seventh-grade student at Rylie Junior High School, playing basketball in my one o’clock P.E. class.
Our instructor, Mr. Stewart, strode into the gym with his head down, pensive and troubled. He blew his whistle and ordered us to assemble. In a minute we stood quietly facing him. We could tell that something was wrong. Someone had messed up.
I have a permanent photograph of Mr. Stewart in my mind. I remember what he wore: white shirt, off-white sweater vest and slacks, white sneakers. His thinning blonde hair was slicked back.
“We heard on the news that President Kennedy has been shot,” he said. “Principal Guzick wants you all to report to your homerooms now. So you can change back into your clothes and go to your homeroom.”
While I would forever remember the scene, I could process little of the magnitude then. We all knew that President Kennedy was coming to Dallas that day, and I knew that people were stirred up over the fact that this Yankee president was visiting Texas, where, although it is not really considered a part of the Deep South, there was widespread hatred of him. In my 12-year-old mind, I understood that the president liked Negroes, and favored their equal rights, and that most people we knew did not.
Almost all the students at our school, and the citizens in our small community on the far outskirts of the city, were white. There were no African-Americans, and only a few Hispanics.
I liked the president. I liked it that he was young and handsome. Most politicians were old, fat and stodgy. I liked it that the president was athletic and smiling. I liked hearing him speak, and he seemed to care about people.
When I left the locker room and walked into the main school building, I encountered a bizarre scene: students were running through the hallways, cheering in jubilation, as if school had just been canceled forever. But it hadn’t. They were rejoicing at the shooting of the president, shouting cruel epithets. Just about everyone was taking part. I was shocked, and a little scared. A hidden meanness in these children had been revealed to me.
When I got to my homeroom, most of my classmates were at their desks. The room was silent except for occasional whispers of confusion and rumor. One girl wept softly, hiding her face. Our teacher stood by the door, worried and waiting for seats to fill.
I can only conjecture as to why my classmates were solemn, while most other pupils in our school were exuberant. Our homeroom was an honors class, composed of A students. The inference one might draw is that often hatred, especially racial hatred, is born of ignorance. Of course none of us knew much of national politics. We had mostly inherited our elders’ perspectives.
That evening, my parents and I sat at the kitchen table watching Walter Cronkite relay the details as they trickled in. My mother and father had lived through the Great Depression, so they were FDR Democrats. They might not have understood this man from Massachusetts, but they retained party loyalty. Ours was a Democratic household.
My mother, weeping, dropped her head and slowly pounded the table. “I love this country, and I love this president.”
My father, uncomfortable at the display of emotion, but caring and sympathetic, put his arm around his wife’s shoulder and squeezed her lightly. “All right, Mother.” He was tearing up, too. I had never seen my father cry.
Two days later, as we drove home from church, we were listening to live news. When Jack Ruby gunned down Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement of the Dallas police headquarters, we heard the shot on our car radio. I can remember where we were on that country road when I heard the sound.
Fifty years later, our nation still bears the scars of these events, and struggles to understand. Few incidents in American history have been so thoroughly examined and dissected, and yet as time passes it seems the more uncertain we are as to what exactly happened in Dallas. On that day, the greatest nation on earth was savaged by pure evil. But I believe that while evil may sometimes triumph it cannot prevail. I believe that one day we will learn the whole truth.
Until then, perhaps all we can take away from this enduring wound is the dire hope that nothing like it ever happens again.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” –Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from Theodore Parker
If you have a memory of that day you would like to share, please leave a Comment below. Thanks.