Looking back through the haze of history, it’s hard to see clearly a time when an American president would be driven through the streets of a U.S. city in an open convertible, wind swirling through his hair, as President John Kennedy was on that fateful day in Dallas 50 years ago. Yet, that picture emerges from the latter part of the 20th century, the not-so-distant past.
It was hardly a more innocent time. I won’t indulge in that cheap sentimentality. Black Americans were still subject to the harsh lash of Jim Crow; many women were at the mercy of violent husbands; pedophiles in high places preyed on their victims without fear of penalty.
Still, November 1963 was, in many ways, a more naive era — one before gun violence became an emblem of American life, before security trappings took over public and private buildings, before ubiquitous surveillance cameras, before the vicious hatred of alienated men (and a few women) strafed our public commons.
John Kennedy wasn’t the first American president to be assassinated, of course. He wasn’t commander in chief during a violent revolt, when the very fate of the republic hung in the balance. He wasn’t even the sitting president during the tumult of the latter 1960s, when the craziness of an unnecessary war and the continuing protests of a long-suffering people seemed the catalysts that might spark genuine revolution.
But Kennedy’s assassination 50 years ago did mark the opening of that apocalyptic period, that combustible era when a great man could be gunned down on a hotel balcony or in the passageway of a hotel kitchen. And it marked the end of something else, too — some quaint notion of security, of comity, of patriotism.
How stunned we all were at the news that spread surprisingly quickly for an age before Twitter, Facebook and 24-hour cable news. Few moments could so convulse a nation and unite it in grief. Some of my elementary school classmates cried at the news of the president’s death.
I remember it as the first in a series of bleak, unspeakable moments, incomprehensible atrocities that later consumed Martin Luther King Jr. and, in rapid succession, Bobby Kennedy. When President Kennedy was shot, the bloodshed was only just beginning.