I was in Latin class at Welsh Valley Junior High School when John Dodds, the principal, came on the loudspeaker to announce the President had been shot. He ended his announcement, “I want you all to act like Americans.”
I want you all to act like Americans.
How does an American act? This is not a question a thirteen year-old thinks about much. And if, in extreme circumstances, the question is asked, you look to the adults to give you guidance.
When Mr. Dodds brief address was over, my Latin teacher, her Italian surname long forgotten but not her physical presence—short, very dark hair—raced out of the classroom in tears. Is that how an American acts?
There were tears everywhere and hushed tones among the adults for days. This event was something more than a death in the family. For all the sophisticated debunking of Kennedy’s reputation in the many decades since, the grief when the man was shot wasn’t the grief of fools and it was unlike any I have encountered since.
The day of the funeral, my mother sitting in her bedroom with my best friend’s mother. It is a bright, cold, late autumn day, the shades are drawn as in a house of mourning, enough light creeping in at the edges to give the room a silvery dark cast. The pair of them are heaving with sobs as they watch the event on a black and white television. Two women in their thirties, already matriarchs with seven children between them, abandoned to emotion in a way that I had never witnessed in adults before.
Try to figure out why there is this wild keening but don’t yet have the life experience or mental capacity to explain it. What thirteen year-old could have?
Explanations for the scene flash through the brain long after the fact.
We were Democrats. All the people we knew were Democrats. Of course, all the people we knew were Jewish and to be Jewish was to be a Democrat. It was our tribe and the tribal leader had been slain. That certainly was part of their grief.
We were indoctrinated early in the true political faith of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal. We learned that Harry Truman was a man who took responsibility for the hard decisions and had dropped the bomb which ended the war and then, against all advice, became the first world leader to recognize Israel just minutes after David Ben-Gurion declared its statehood on May 14, 1948.
My indoctrination into the tribe began in earnest in the 1960 campaign. After eight years of Republican rule the prospect of a Kennedy victory represented a return to the New Deal dispensation.
My father let me stay up late to watch the Kennedy-Nixon debates. Poppa excitedly shouting to my mother who was not watching, “Honey, come look at ol’ Kennedy wipe the floor with Nixon.”
The election in 1960 was close and who would win in Pennsylvania was unclear. Where we lived in suburban Philadelphia, Jews and Democrats were in the minority both ethnically and politically. A little over a week before the election, Nixon and Kennedy campaigned a few miles apart in our part of the world on the same Saturday.
We went as a family to the Kennedy rally at Bala Cynwyd shopping center. Rain splashing down on and off, 10,000 people in the parking lot. In the crush you can’t see much except the reddish, orange colour of JFK’s hair. After the speech, as his motorcade pulled slowly out of the throng, my mother, in an eerie foreshadowing of an image we kept seeing over and over again in these days of grief, tried to climb onto the back of the limousine in which he was being whisked away. Like some frantic fangirl, she just wanted to touch him.
When Kennedy won, the feeling in our house, among all my extended family, was that equilibrium had been restored. The party of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal were back in charge.
Three days passed between the assassination and the funeral and much of my world ground to a halt. Parents not around much. Where were they? At synagogue? Visiting with friends? The need to be in the company of other adults had become paramount.
The days go by. My younger brothers and I hacked around outside. Our house was wedged into a steep hillside and the front lawn rolled down to the street in two distinct bumps. We were playing a favorite game: slow motion death, based on a World War 2 comic book, Our Army at War with Sgt. Rock and the combat happy Joes of Easy Company. Shoot one another, die in slow motion, roll down the slopes.
In the middle of the game, the baby-sitter comes out and shouts.
“Oh my God, they shot him.”
“They shot Oswald.”
Race in to watch the news, leaving my brothers to carry on re-fighting World War 2 on their own.
Then the next day the funeral and my mother’s grief in her darkened room.
People like to ask the “Where were you?” question because it links us to historic events. It makes us think about those big moments when time’s flow is ruptured by some unimaginable occurrence as we were going about our daily business. It brings ordinary events of life into sharp focus and shows how connected we are to big historical moments.
“Where were you when you heard the news of X” is a question that should be rare in a functioning society, especially when it is asked of political assassination. But over the next five years assassination became so commonplace that people stopped asking. Political murder became an accepted part of ordinary life in America.
Since people didn’t ask then, let me ask now:
Where were you on June 12, 1963? On that day, in a foreshadowing of the half-decade to come, Medgar Evers, field secretary of the Mississippi branch of the NAACP, was shot in the back in the driveway of his home in Jackson. I don’t know where I was and very few people alive then outside Mississippi will either.
Where were you on June 21st 1964? On that day, three civil-rights workers—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were abducted from their car on a backroad near Philadelphia, Mississippi. The three young men had just arrived in the state to be part of the Freedom Summer, an organized drive to help register Black citizens to vote. They were taken to a farm, executed, their bodies buried in an earthen dam.
If you were alive then, you can be forgiven for not knowing where you were since their deaths weren’t confirmed until the bodies were found on August 4th.
Where were you on Feb 21st, 1965? On that day Malcolm X was gunned down in Harlem, at the Audubon Ballroom.
Where were you on March 11, 1965? On that day, Pastor James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister was in Selma, Alabama to march to Montgomery, the state capitol, with Dr. Martin Luther King for African-American Voting Rights. He and a group of fellow white clergymen were set upon by a group of white segregationists. Reeb was severely beaten around the head and died of his injuries.
Where were you on March 25, 1965? On that day Viola Liuzzo, a volunteer from Detroit working on the Selma-Montgomery marches was shot in the head as she drove to Montgomery to pick up marchers and ferry them back to Selma.
Where were you on April 4, 1968? On that day, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
I had spent the years after President Kennedy’s assassination in an adolescent cocoon, aware but not responsive to the world. But by 1968 my cocoon had cracked open and I was emerging and know exactly where I was: at home, watching the evening news. King had been shot around 6 pm in Memphis, 7 pm in New York where the national news programs were produced. The word of his death was tacked on at the last minute to the broadcast. The announcement is shocking but I don’t immediately absorb the deeper meaning of Dr. King’s murder because I had other things on my mind. The next evening I had a date, a rare occurrence.
So my memories of King’s murder are intimately intertwined with taking J. J. to the recently opened Electric Factory at 22nd and Arch Streets in Center City Philadelphia to hear the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. A year older than me, J.J. was living in the Delta Delta Delta sorority house at the University of Pennsylvania. There had been some frantic calling in the late afternoon to the Electric Factory to make sure the gig was still happening and then to the Tri-Delt house to make sure our date was still on.
She was worried about safety. Washington DC had exploded overnight with major rioting. The Penn campus was bordered on three sides by black neighborhoods. But warnings from campus and sorority authorities to stay inside were not going to stop this date from happening.
The crowd at the Electric Factory was small. The Butterfield Blues band played a brief, desultory set, enough to fulfill contractual obligations. It is possible that the black members of the band had taken the night off which added to the flatness of the experience. In any case the show ended after about half an hour. We walked to my car and I drove J.J. back to the Penn campus.
A seventh seal silence, a bit longer than the space of half an hour, had fallen over the city. No one was walking in the Friday night streets, virtually no cars. People were waiting behind closed doors for a riot, which in Philadelphia did not come.
Where were you on June 6, 1968? On that day Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles, California.
It was just past midnight in LA when the fatal shots were fired, three in the morning on the east coast. I had 10 days of high school left.
As he did every morning, my father woke me up by lifting the shade in my room at 6 a.m. just before he left for the hospital. He gave me the news. It was a glorious late spring morning, the sun and the news of Bobby Kennedy’s death woke me bolt upright. I got into the shower and as the hot water pummeled down felt a twist in my stomach and a flood of hormones through my brain. Nausea and shaking. These physical symptoms took a moment to name: Fear. But it was not like the fear you get from a sudden loud noise, or being confronted by a bully who wants to physically harm you, or the after the fact, “I could have been killed” shakes when you blow through a stop sign because you’re listening to the new Rolling Stones release and not paying attention to your driving.
This fear was expressed in a thought, “They Will Kill Us All.”
Who “they” were wasn’t clear, but all these leaders came from one side of politics, my tribe’s side of politics: JFK, Malcolm, Martin, Bobby, and by then I knew the name Medgar Evers. They just happened to be the only ones assassinated in the last five years. Shaking as the water came down, thinking: this was no coincidence. Some group, some cabal, must be behind all of these deaths.
But the feeling was more than fear that my tribe was being attacked. It was the existential fear that comes when reality is torn apart. I’m speaking of the reality experienced every waking second as the uninterrupted flow of time in which you get up, go to work or school or raise your children, inhale-exhale without thinking, autonomic. The reality that exists as the pure present tense … that just IS.
And for those moments in the shower, that world, that reality, that America for me was gone.
Perhaps this existential fear was part of the explanation for the explosive sobs of my mother in her darkened bedroom on the day of President Kennedy’s funeral.
I have never felt that fear again, not even when under fire covering conflicts. I knew where I was and why and what the circumstances of the battlefield were like. But in those same conflict areas I met people who were experiencing what I felt in the shower that morning: the sense that reality was completely false; that unthought of assumptions about life did not hold. You find them staring blankly at the world in the middle of the day hunkered down on the side of the road, sitting listlessly in refugee centers. They stare the way a person stares at the ceiling after waking from a nightmare, not sure if they are still inside the dream or not.
And not coincidentally: during the half decade of assassination, every summer, cities around the country erupted in race riots. Hundreds were killed, thousands arrested, millions of dollars in property destroyed. Troops just back from Vietnam were deployed in the streets to maintain order.
If you just look at the headlines from 1963 through 1968 concerning political murders and riots you’d think the US was like one of those Latin American countries in whose internal politics American presidents love to intervene, installing military governments to bring “stability” to societies spinning out of control.
There was hope and progress side by side with the mayhem. Two steps forward one step back.
The reason people could be forgiven for not knowing where they were when Medgar Evers was shot in Mississippi is that the same day, next door in Alabama, Governor George Wallace stopped his melodramatic attempt to prevent two African-Americans registering for classes at the University of Alabama. He literally stood in the doorway of the Foster Auditorium building to prevent the integration of the campus, until ordered by the Kennedy justice department to stand aside. Wallace’s capitulation was a giant step in the fight to end segregation in the South. In the major national newspapers the next day the lead story was about Wallace’s stand down. Evers’ assassination was the 2nd lead.
Two months after Evers’ murder, in August, 1963, came the great March on Washington at which Dr. King delivered his I Have a Dream speech. In November, President Kennedy was shot. The new President, Lyndon Johnson, made passage of a civil rights bill that Kennedy had hoped to push through Congress a priority. He invoked the murdered president’s name to get it enacted. The bill was passed into law by July 1964. But voting rights protection had been stripped from the bill in order for the law to pass. Johnson wasn’t satisfied.
In March of 1965, just weeks after the violence at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights March and a few days after the death of Pastor James Reeb, Johnson summoned both houses of Congress and delivered a 44 minute long speech. In his way, Johnson was calling on Congress “to act like Americans.”
Rarely in any time does an issue lay bare the secret heart of America itself. Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, or our welfare or our security, but rather to the values, and the purposes, and the meaning of our beloved nation.
The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue.
And should we defeat every enemy, and should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation. For with a country as with a person, "What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"
There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans -- not as Democrats or Republicans. We are met here as Americans to solve that problem.
Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote.
President Johnson went on:
Even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it's not just Negroes, but really it's all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.
And we shall overcome.
A few days later, Viola Liuzzo was murdered.
Yet even as the casualty figures continued to rise, step by step progress was being made. The Voting Rights Act was passed in the summer, not quite two years after Martin Luther King addressed the throng in Washington.
Then the focus went from civil rights to the war in Vietnam. King became a leading voice against that conflict as did Bobby Kennedy. Johnson steadily expanded the war even as he pushed to get civil rights legislation through Congress. People marched against Johnson’s Vietnam policy and they got action. The President lost significant backing within the Democratic Party and decided not to seek re-election. He made that announcement on March 31st, 1968.
Martin Luther King was murdered four days later, Bobby Kennedy was shot two months after that.
Then the times changed. There would be more occasions to ask, “Where were you?” over the next few years but by then the sacrifices of the dead would no longer be balanced out by progress.
I know where I was when the news broke that Fred Hampton had been murdered in December 1969. In another chapter I will tell you where I was when four students were gunned down by federal troops at Kent State University six months to the day after Hampton was assassinated.
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place,” Dr. King said in the speech he gave the night before he was murdered.
I have been granted longevity. As I write these words I am 70-years old, and have some sense of the profound changes that occur in a person when he is allowed to live a full biblical span.
When I look back at America’s half-decade of assassination I am struck by how young the dead were. The Kennedy brothers were in their 40s, and they were the oldest. Dr. King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers were in their 30s. They hadn’t even entered middle age.
All had achieved a great deal, but they had not lived long enough to give history a definitive sense of the leaders they might have become. Their lives cannot be fully judged.
Over the last half century, as America careered towards its present calamity, what might any of those men have done to guide the country away from disaster if they had been allowed to live to 70? No nation can afford to lose so many leaders in such a violent way in such a concentrated space of time and hope to have a smooth passage into the future.
I want you all to act like Americans.
I have lived half my life in another country. I have spent more than three decades writing and making documentaries about American history and culture, as well as providing instant political analysis of my native country for radio and television in Britain and the rest of the English-speaking world.
I am marinated in my American-ness and yet after nearly 60 years I am still trying to figure out what my junior high school principal, John Dodds, meant on the day President Kennedy was shot when he told us to, “act like Americans.”
How does an American act?
What I know for certain is that American means something very different today than it did before the assassinations started.
This is the fourth chapter of History of a Calamity: America from Victory in World War 2 to Donald Trump and Cold Civil War. Another chapter will be out in around two weeks.
In the meantime please visit my FRDH, First Rough Draft of History, podcast. Hours of stuff to listen to about not just America, but also culture and faith and history in general.