*On the chilly afternoon of November 22, 1963, someone, probably a teacher, stuck their head inside my third grade classroom at Woodson Elementary and motioned for Miss Walker, our teacher, to step out into the hallway.
She did, but in a matter of seconds, Miss Walker was back, turning on the Oklahoma City Public Schools-issued television in our room and finding channel KWTV, the CBS affiliate carrying news anchor Walter Cronkite. She then went to the front of the room and announced to the class that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas.
And then the tall, brown Miss Walker, on whom I had yet another of my hopeless crushes, did something I’d never seen any teacher do before or since: she began to cry.
Just eight years old, I didn’t know teachers cried. It wasn’t a full-on bawl, but there were enough tears that tissue was required. Between the news we’d just been given and Miss Walker’s reaction to it, we were stunned.
After a few somber minutes of watching an uncharacteristically crestfallen Cronkite, we were directed to the classroom closet to get our coats–though we’d just had one a couple hours earlier, suddenly, we were taking another recess. I’m sure the teacher thought it would ease our young minds.
The whole thing felt like a bizarre emergency. For those of you not old enough to remember or not yet born, think 9/11. Similar shock, same fear. Same what-is-the-world-coming-to?
It was strange being the only kids on the playground at an hour we weren’t accustomed to being out there. None of us played. I stood with my hands in the pockets of my coat and said to a classmate, “I hate Texas.”
The death of President John F. Kennedy was the first time I was presented the notion that there was more going on in life than candy, toys, cartoons, TG&Y, holidays and the state fair (the Beatles, my musical obsession, I wouldn’t discover until 1964). Imagine being snapped out of naivety just eight years into your existence. When both your school teacher and Walter Cronkite are moved to tears, you know something is seriously wrong.
However, even at eight years old and with absolutely no understanding of politics, I knew that Kennedy’s death was a really bad thing, particularly for the Negro. It had long been established by the nation’s Negro community, whether or not it was always entirely true, that Kennedy was the only white man in American politics who truly cared about us.
Because of his championing of civil rights, the American Negro believed in all things Kennedy, and his assassination left us asking, “What are going to do now?” We were sad, but we were also afraid. During his televised funeral, Mama quietly wept as if we’d lost a relative.
Fifty years since Kennedy’s death, America—the world–is a very different place. Were he around, I have no doubt he’d be impressed with the progress. Not to mention all the schools and airports and other buildings in his name. However, to paraphrase a dusty old cliché, the more things change, the more some things stay the same. The strain of hate and bigotry today is, in many ways, stronger than it was in 1963. But no longer am I eight years old. No longer am I afraid.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected]