*This week, fifty years ago, the world changed.
November 22, 1963, is a day that should be marked for eternal infamy in American history.
Other than the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, which changed the trajectory of the 19th Century, there was no more a defining moment in the 20th Century—particularly the second half of the 20th Century—than the assassination of 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK).
For those of us who lived through this day, and the days to follow, the event is indelibly etched in our memories and our psyches.
Kennedy was the youngest President ever elected and the first born in the 20th Century. He won by the narrowest of margins in the history of the Presidential elections, at that point.
Until the Bush-Gore election in 2000, the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon Presidential was the closest race in American history. And as he stated in his one and only inaugural address, the torch was passed to a new generation. One that hadn’t been marked by the Great Depression, by came of age during World War II and the ravishes of war—understanding the devastation a new technology could bring to future wars and the finality that nuclear destruction could bring to an ever-changing world.
JFK represented everything that was new and different about government, reflecting a new generation of Americans that were not steeped in race reality and warmongering. He brought a new cultural identity to the office of the Presidency as the first Roman Catholic President, and what appeared to be a new sensitivity to the racial strife in the nation.
Kennedy was elected at a time when a new technological medium, television, became the dominant cultural socializer and primary source of information. He was the first “television” President and he mastered it in the same way our current President mastered social media. The nation watched the pageantry and circumstance around this President like no other.
They (the nation) were also witness to his turmoil—a turmoil that came close to ending the world (the Cuban Missile Crisis) and ultimately ended his life. America wasn’t just in social and political turmoil, as the Civil Rights Movement was now in full swing and the Viet Nam war was in formation, the world was in turmoil as Europe was rebuilding with a caustic eye on Russia—colonialism was falling in Africa and revolution was taking place in Cuba.
The world was taking on a new of vision of itself and the United States was no exception, so it put a fresh new face on the world stage that caused the world to pause and take notice. His wife, Jacqueline Kennedy redefined the role of the First Lady and remodeled the White House, opening it up to the public. The Kennedys weren’t just young, they were different. Sure, they was privileged but they didn’t just represent the young who wanted a chance to lead. They represented an open-ness to their government that the American public fully embraced.
The nation loved its new President.
The Kennedy administration brought an enthusiasm to public service that the nation hadn’t seen before. Kennedy asked the nation to serve with him. He told the country on his first day, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
No President had done that before, beyond asking men and women to serve in the military, go to war and die for their country. Kennedy encouraged American to live for their country, and make it better because you personally had a hand in it. He suggested that you could serve your country for more than war—you can serve your country for peace. His presidency started the Peace Corps to allow American to serve in communities at home and abroad. He created the Medal of Freedom to give recognition to civilians for a life of service in making America and the world better. This was visionary and he pricked the conscience of a nation.
Two generations to follow would dedicate their lives to public service and root their civic engagement in a social consciousness that sought to bring about some semblance of social and economic justice.
Kennedy challenged the nation to dream about the possibilities and challenged America to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade—after the Russians launched the first manned space rocket. Space exploration would be among America’s greatest achievements in the remainder of the 20th Century. Kennedy promoted idealism and encouraged a new generation of intellectuals to use their intellectualism for public service—not just for profit (corporate greed).
Kennedy’s boldest challenge was his confrontation of the unsettling, and tragic, events that were taking place in the South—that most Presidents of the 20th Century ignored.
On June 11, 1963, President Kennedy made a televised announcement, calling on Congress to introduce Civil Rights legislation (which ultimately became the Civil Rights Act of 1964). Kennedy called racism in America a “moral crisis” after he had to send federal troops to the University of Alabama to aid desegregation efforts (George Wallace’s infamous standing in the doorway of the admissions office of U of A). A day later, the Field Secretary of the State NAACP, Medgar Evers, was shot in the back in his driveway in Jackson, Mississippi. He had led efforts to desegregate the University of Mississippi. This was a volatile time in America and Kennedy took it head on—when he could no longer avoid it.
This adds to his legacy as to why he is so loved by African Americans. But his real legacy in rooted in the martyr-ism of an unfulfilled life.
President Kennedy became a casualty of the volatility of times—his life cut short in a period of great hope and optimism. His death so vile, and so public, that the nation could never get it out of their heads. The nation never got closure on his death because it was so unbelievable. No answer never seemed satisfactory, and it is still the most investigated death in American history.
Fifty years later, we know no more than we knew than—what the government told us (in the Warren Report) happened to our President. The older we got—the more resigned we became, that we will never know who killed JFK, and why. We just accept the fact he’s gone, and so is a period of American optimism that the nation never regained. But we do remember.
A half a century hasn’t erased the feeling. The feeling we all felt—the world felt.
50 years ago this week.
Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist and author of, REAL EYEZ: Race, Reality and Politics in 21 Century Popular Culture. He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com and on Twitter at @DrAnthonySamad.