Saturday, November 23, 2013

50 Years Later: My Thoughts on JFK's Assassination

I was a 17 year old sophomore at Columbia College when JFK was assassinated. I was walking up the steps of Low Library toward my art history class when I got the news, Like many of my classmates, I was stunned, and watched the funeral and subsequent events with them on televisions in the student lounge in my residence hall.

But unlike many of my classmates, I had a larger narrative in which to place his death. As someone making the transition from college athlete to civil rights activist, I viewed the assassination in much the same way that Malcolm X did "as chickens coming home to roost." I was convinced that Kennedy had been killed because, under great pressure, he had endorsed the goals of the civil rights movement and put teeth in that support by introducing a Civil Right bill.  What follows is my analysis of the meaning of JFK's assassination, written from a distance and through an historian's and activists lens:

JFK's death proved to be a nail in the coffin in the ethos of passivity and conformity that shaped my experiences as a young person growing up in the 1950's

I often tell students that two events gave people of my generation the licence to imagine themselves as activists fighting for justice rather than individuals striving for a secure place in the middle class- the student sit ins that began in Greensboro North Carolina and JFK's inaugural address. JFK was the first elected official in my lifetime, and the first public leader of any importance- to tell young people that public service and a confrontation with problems of poverty and inequality was a noble calling. Even though he meant those words to be applied globally, in the struggle against Communism, many young people applied them to the emerging civil rights struggle as participants and supporters. And that struggle, though not always initially supported by JFK, pushed him to become a more forceful advocate for racial justice in the US just as it pushed the youth of America to adopt that cause as their own.. When JFK became the first president in US history, to give a televised address to the nation, unequivocally supporting full racial equality, and introduce a Civil Rights Bill to help achieve that objective, it was a sign that the conformist politics of the McCarthy Era had been left behind, and that fear of Communism would no longer undermine all possibilities of domestic protest.

When JFK was assassinated, many of us felt we had lost part of ourselves, but we also felt reaffirmed in our commitment to fight for racial justice no matter what obstacles were placed in our path. He became not only a symbol of our cause, but a martyr to it.

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