Where Were You When JFK Died?

Here is another in a series of anniversary reflections associated with November, 2013. When did JFK die? Well, he was shot on November 22, 1963. Fifty years ago. For those of my generation (and older), we know where we were when we learned  — with the same vividness many of us remember where we were when the planes hit the Twin Towers or friends from South Africa were around the death of Steven Biko. When such moments happen, they shape us — or we come to believe they do — and we remember (or we come to believe we do).

So: for those who have never seen it, here is the video of the assassination itself. I was in the third grade; perhaps this video contributed to my “memory” — though I am certain I remember where I was (in class at GreenTree Elementary when it was announced) and I definitely recall watching the almost silent televising of the funeral.

JFK — Camelot? The Bay of Pigs and the Berlin Wall? The Peace Corps?

Why does any of this — from assassination (and conspiracy theories) to the space race matter on a blog about higher education? Several reasons:

1. Of course, the space race had significant impact on higher education through the increased valuing of and funding of science, technology and related fields — firing the imaginations of many. Today we know this in the form of a renewed need to focus on STEM.

2. Through JFK’s role — for good or ill — in and around racial matters, we still live with some legacy of his presidency. Thus, for example, in Executive Orders he pushed for employment and other fair treatment. This returns in particular ways given his use of the phrase “affirmative action” — and continues to affect individuals employed in higher education.

3. Gender — then called sex — mattered then in education and in much more. Thus, JFK is associated with the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt and created based on an Executive Order which he signed in 1961. (And this is not to mention the Equal Pay Act.) For women, such matters continue to resonate.

4. Of course, JFK was also heavily involved in escalation in Vietnam, and can be remembered as someone who increased American presence significantly across Southeast Asia. Higher education (as with American culture more broadly) was forever transformed by the struggles around this controversial war. We can trace aspects of what we today call Asian Studies to his era as well.

5. Kennedy was also noted as someone who brought “intellectuals” to Washington, DC — and created a cabinet and civil service engaging many university and college leaders. A moment of equating intellectuals with democrats — perhaps not dissimilar form other eras in American politics.

There are more reasons to remember JFK — and to remember a time before violence against leaders seemed an always present threat. And, of course, there is always a reason to stop and remember when such violence leads to a nation in mourning — and yet, no successful gun control. Fifty years later. Hmmm Where were you? Where are we?

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  • I was sitting in an English Lit class on the DePaul Lincoln Park campus. We could hear students praying aloud on the street outside. When I left the Liberal Arts building and walked to the el, along the way people seemed frozen in their tracks, dazed and unbelieving. It was the same Downtown when I emerged from the subway. People stood visibly shaken, weeping unabashedly. The moment seemed frozen in communal grief.

  • I was an urban affairs graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, preparing to go home to Chicago for the weekend. I heard the news on the radio and rushed down to tell the couple whose attic room I was renting. The husband is another story in himself: He was a doctor in World War I serving in the German armed forces. He was captured by the Russians and sent to a Siberian prison camp. He escaped and walked to China from where he was eventually repatriated. The couple was so liberal (I was one then too) that they first were convinced that Kennedy had been shot by the ugly right-wingers who had given Dallas its reputation for violence. Back in Chicago that night, my girlfriend's mother scolded us for going out. We headed for the Loop, expecting I don't know what. There weren't many people there and it was deathly quiet. After Sunday mass, I learned from brother Bill that Ruby had been shot. He had been witness to the first live broadcast of a murder.

  • In reply to Dennis Byrne:

    Oops, I meant when Ruby shot Oswald.

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