Memories of John F. Kennedy are rising up as from a subterranean spring with the 50th anniversary of his assassination approaching. In our historical memory he has become a touchstone for aspiration and loss, for ideals and failings.
One of his last bits of business before heading off to Dallas back in 1963 involved Vermont and a disaster declaration. A story in the Rutland Herald and Times Argus today describes those most ordinary events, made memorable by the extraordinary events that followed.
Soon Kennedy was gone. The details of his assassination on Nov. 22 have undergone five decades of examination, provoked in part by the enormity of the trauma caused by the president’s murder set off against the smallness of the man who killed him. In these days before the anniversary of his death, it is worth remembering the world as it existed in the weeks and months leading up to his death. The common story is that the nation had lost its innocence because of the assassination. But those were not innocent times.
It was a shockingly violent time. One of the signal events of the period occurred two months before Kennedy’s murder. That is when Klansmen bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., killing four girls who had arrived to attend church services. Later in the day two boys in Birmingham were gunned down in cold blood.
These were shocking events, but they were part of a continuum that had marked 1963 as a time of extraordinary violence and division. Birmingham is remembered as a central chapter in the story of the civil rights movement. During 1963 activists had tried to mount a boycott of downtown businesses because of discrimination against African-Americans. When the protest movement faltered, church leaders enlisted the children of Birmingham to march downtown.
Setting off from the 16th Street Baptist Church, they were set upon by fire hoses and police dogs under the direction of the notorious Eugene “Bull” Connor. The Birmingham protest was taking place in the context of the struggle to integrate the universities of Alabama and Mississippi, for which purpose President Kennedy had called out the National Guard. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed during the Birmingham protests, leading him to write his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
The atmosphere of violence was pervasive. Dozens of bombs damaged homes and businesses of African-Americans. One residential neighborhood in Birmingham was called Dynamite Hill, and the city became known as “Bombingham.” And yet white America was only dimly aware. Author Diane McWhorter was a girl in Birmingham at the time, and she has written about the “cultural amnesia” of the nation, of our tendency to accept, as she and her friends and neighbors did, terrible injustice as normal.
This was the atmosphere of violence in which Lee Harvey Oswald decided he ought to kill the president. Civil rights did not interest him one way or another, as far as we know. He was a frustrated little man who conceived of himself in grandiose terms. He needed to do something that would mark him as great. Violence was in the air. When news of the assassination reached Birmingham, white youths in cars raced past black schools cheering that the “n----- lover” was dead.
If violence was teeming just beneath the surface, or was unseen by white people like Diane McWhorter, it could no longer be ignored when the president was slain. The entire nation saw it as a bloody rupture of the national life. But the murder of those four girls in Birmingham had already been a bloody rupture for those families and their community.
It is worth confronting our cultural amnesia during these days of division — to remember the awful depths of the divisions that existed before. What brought people through was the bravery and dignity of those in the struggle and their willingness to put themselves on the line. We can be glad that bombs are not exploding with regularity these days, and overt hatred has been forced to camouflage itself. But history is still happening all around us.
No one knew in the fall of 1963 what terrible plot was germinating in the mind of Lee Harvey Oswald. The nation had many demons to confront and a difficult period of riot and war ahead of it. But it is possible to rise above the violence.
One of the children in the children’s crusade in Birmingham that spring was a boy named Freeman Hrabowski. He remembers when he was at the head of a march that was approaching Bull Connor. Connor responded by spitting in the boy’s face. Hrabowski is now president of the University of Maryland at Baltimore and is viewed as one of America’s leading educators.
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