Historians who have studied the student movements of the sixties have often considered the assassination of John F. Kennedy to be some sort of starting point, an event that disrupted public feelings of security and safety emanating from the fifties. I think there might be some truth in this, even though my own personal political evolution had begun in 1960. It is only in retrospect that I realize how close the Free Speech Movement was to the assassination chronologically. In any case, people often ask me, as a survivor of the sixties, what I remember about John F. Kennedy, so I include it here on their behalf.
My JFK story goes beyond what was I doing the day he was assassinated. You have to start with Georgia. When he was running for president, I was a Florida resident attending a Baptist Bible college in south Georgia that Jimmy Carter would know, but few others. Norman Park, “halfway between Moultrie and Tifton”, we used to say.
Everyone there was either training to be a preacher or training to marry a preacher or they were preacher’s bad children sent there as an alternative to the military. Bad boys in those days, at least, were often given a choice by the judge–so for them it was punishment. Those Georgia students aware enough to care about voting, were eligible to vote because voting age in Georgia was 18. Florida students interested enough to care, could not vote because voting age in Florida was 21. The point is, I was keenly interested and had vehement opinions on the subject, even though I was not even eligible to vote. That’s the start of my relationship to Kennedy.
I was probably the only supporter of Kennedy to be found on campus, or at least the only one who copped to it. There was only one issue, do you want a Catholic to be president. It was a Baptist preacher training college, Baptists are the very most Protestant of Protestants. Catholicism in Baptist land is only a step or two away from devil worship. So JFK was my first dig-in-your-heels political position and my defending him probably contributed to the values explosion that preceded my expulsion. When Kennedy proposed the Peace Corps, he did it only weeks after I had finished reading The Ugly American. The Peace Corps seemed to me to be the exactly right answer to that book.
So, after my second expulsion, from Florida State University, I applied for the newly established Peace Corps, probably among the first wave of people to apply. Imagine my surprise when I was not accepted because of the two expulsions that related directly to my contributions to making peace between races. In some degree, my public and dangerous defense of Kennedy, mixed in with integrationist sympathies and some interactions I had with the Civics teacher around her assigning J. Edgar Hoover’s Masters of Deceit as required reading, contributed to my being rejected from the Peace Corps, started by the guy I was defending.
So, I had intensely conflicted feelings about JFK and I really, really despised Jackie Kennedy, the absolute epitome of snob. I didn’t like his wife, I didn’t like the Kennedy dynasty and the unabashed and unapologetic conspicuous spending of the wealthy. But, he invented the Peace Corps and then saved us from the Russians, so I learned a lot politically from having to wend my way through all these conflicting issues. It was not until years after his death that I learned that some historians blame him for the Vietnam War, so I was doing my wending without the war in the mix.
At the time he was killed, I was working full-time in a small office in downtown Oakland, planning to enter Oakland City College the following semester. In the office were two other women and sometimes a male boss, in his private office off the main office. That day the boss was gone. Every day at about 11 or 12, a courier came and delivered tons of mail to us. He was a young man, probably another in and out college student like me. Every day he had some kind of joke to tell us, always starting with a deadpan. On that day, he came and said, “Did you hear about the President?” and we all thought it was the start of a joke.
But then, we really saw his face. He said, “No, I’m serious. The President’s been shot. Turn on the radio.” We immediately broke rules and ran into the boss’s office, where there was a radio and turned it on. The radio was playing a piece of classical music, with which I was very familiar, having been raised by a very churchy mother. It is a piece played often, even in Baptist churches, despite its Catholic roots. One of the women turned to the next station and the exact same piece of music was playing.
We all looked at each other amazed and went to the next station, where the same music was playing. We swept the entire dial before we finally found a station not playing the music but giving out the news. I later learned that Kennedy had once said that Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” was his favorite piece of music, so all the stations were playing it at the announcement of his death as a sign of respect. I can never hear that piece of music without being for just a moment back in the office with my co-workers, listening to the radio.
I was the first one to break from the radio. I grabbed my coat and said, “Hey, its my lunch break.” I walked out of the office, which was right downtown near the Oakland Tribune tower, into one of the strangest scenes I had ever been in and I had, by that time, been in a few. There was almost no noise. No horns honking, traffic sounds subdued and no speaking in an area that was usually full of people and people noise. Groups of people had gathered in front of stores selling TVs and the stores had turned up the sound so that everyone outside could hear. I stood at the edge of a small crowd, listening. I couldn’t see the screen, I’m short, but I heard the newscasters.
It was a very silent afternoon of work back at the office. We were doing mindless repetitive envelope stuffing, so we could talk while we worked and we did talk about it some, but I was really stunned and unable to talk yet. That evening, or maybe the next evening, my husband and I decided we would like to go to one of the many memorial services being held in places of worship. We ended up going to the largest synagogue in the East Bay, whose name I can’t recall, but it was huge. The only place I’d ever been inside that was as large as this synagogue was the First Baptist Church of Atlanta. The service included a cellist, a rabbi and the first cantor I had ever heard. There was a long period of the cantor reciting the Kaddish in Hebrew, which put me into a very trance-like state, since I certainly did not speak or understand Hebrew and so it shocked me physically when I heard the words “John Fitzgerald Kennedy” in the middle of all the Hebrew. I’m sure I even jumped a little and that is another memory that is seared into my brain from that time.
In the years since, I’ve certainly had an opportunity to deepen my understanding of John Kennedy, which matters to me because he was my first political cause. And to get the context of the Kennedys. The end of my JFK story has to be the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Robert, now, I was much more open to because of his civil rights connection. When he came to speak at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, running for president, I was not one of the Eugene McCarthyites. I wanted to hear what Robert Kennedy sounded like in comparison to McCarthy. And, I was still recovering from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Every single thing Kennedy said and every nuance in the way he said it told me this was my guy. So when he was assassinated shortly after that, my grief for him was even greater than was my grief for his brother and there was, at that point, no way at all I could separate the grieving that came from Robert Kennedy’s assassination from the grieving that came from the the other two assassinations.