“PRESIDENT KENNEDY IS KILLED”
The trauma of the handsome, young leader’s Nov. 22. 1963, slaying cut deep. Twists and turns in the case prevented healing as conspiracy theories abounded for decades to come. The wound remains open today, if for no other reason than because of the curiosity of gawking onlookers — many of whom are too young to have experienced the events of that fall day in Dallas, Texas, when the United States lost its 35th president.
For many, John F. Kennedy’s killing was unimaginable. But why? He certainly wasn’t the first U.S. leader felled by an assassin’s bullet. Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley met similar fates — but Kennedy’s death came nearly 100 years after Lincoln’s, and more than 60 years after McKinley’s. In short, generations had passed without the jarring pain of a president suddenly taken away.
That said, Kennedy’s America was not a place or time of innocence.
History records JFK as a universally beloved leader — a moderate Democrat president who earned a place in all Americans’ hearts. The truth, however, belies a reality far more divided than even the nation’s current political state. At one high school in Kansas, for example, the announcement of Kennedy’s assassination over a loud speaker by school administrators was met not with an outpouring of tears, but with cheers and applause.
“I have always been ashamed of being part of that response to a fellow human’s death,” one student among the several hundred reportedly gathered said nearly 50 years later.
Kennedy’s killing came at a time of turmoil in the United States. With the Cold War looming overhead and Vietnam on the horizon, increasingly polarized Americans were sharply at odds over such hot-button issues of the day as Civil Rights and the changing roles of women in society. While Kennedy is lauded today for championing the progressive causes of equality for blacks and women, we must recall that those efforts were not without massive opposition by many Americans. And that opposition and contempt didn’t die with Kennedy.
While people today appear entrenched in their political positions like never before, we should remember it has indeed been worse. Suspicious Americans setting against one another is nothing new (though that doesn’t make hard-line, endless fighting any more acceptable). Think back to slavery, Bleeding Kansas, the Civil War, the Indian wars, the internment of German and Japanese Americans during World War II and the anti-Communist campaigns of the McCarthy era.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Today’s political arguments (over Obamacare, gun control, domestic spying, income inequality and other issues), though less extreme, often mimic those of the past.
The one-sided myths of wildly amorous and bloodthirsty black men preying on white women have been replaced by new myths aimed at maligning entire groups with hatred and fear: Like that all Republicans hate the poor, or that all Democrats are lazy leeches who don’t believe in our nation’s values.
Issues where Americans disagree deserve to be fought out, and neither side should be expected to simply rollover and do all the “compromising.” But it should come with civil discourse — not just rhetoric and posturing with no possibility of a successful outcome.
History — and the, at times, heartbreaking headlines that come with it — needn’t repeat themselves.
— Tommy Felts,