By Charles Henderson
Today marks 50-years since President John Fitzgerald Kennedy died from two gunshot wounds from bullets fired by Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifle. Oswald shot three times, missing once. That day in Dallas, Texas changed America forever. Sadness unlike any other in history shrouded the people of the United States and much of the world.
Where were you when Kennedy was killed? Maybe people asked that question after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination too. When a President means a lot to the people, the event of his murder etches itself indelibly in our minds. Where was I?
Artesia, New Mexico, one time-zone west of Dallas. I had celebrated my 15th birthday on August 26, 1963, and we were now anticipating Thanksgiving holidays. I sat in the backseat of Tommy Burkhart’s 1958 Chevrolet Bel-Air two-door hardtop coupe. We roared down 13th Street in Artesia, driving past Zia Junior High School, going to get lunch at Tommy’s house, listening to KBIM AM radio from Roswell, the nearest station that played rock-and-roll, when the news broke. President Kennedy has been shot.
Even unruly 15-year old boys’ hearts jumped. Stunned at the news. All us in that car, Tommy and me, Bill Mays and Wesley Jones, exclaimed our anguish. Even kids our age took the news hard. Deeply hurt.
A friend of mine said today, that during Kennedy’s time as President of the United States he liked most Democrats. I think that most people who vote conservative today, registered Republicans like Ronald Reagan, strongly supported John F. Kennedy. I know that I did. I loved him as our President. He had great courage and profound leadership, and when he spoke to the nation it was with grace and identity. We Americans knew him. He was one of us. We trusted him, and we revered him.
John F. Kennedy stood apart yet with us. A war hero, awarded the Navy Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor. He had stood nose to nose against the Russians, holding America’s ground with unflinching courage and a determined will. He was America’s President.
Last Sunday, long-time CBS News correspondent and anchor, Bob Schieffer, commented that the day President Kennedy died America lost its innocence. I can appreciate that sentiment. The days of Kennedy were good days for many Americans. However, I have to disagree that it was the day that America lost its innocence. I believe that it was the day that America awakened to its ugliness.
Schieffer might call it innocence, but that is not it. We were oblivious to the pain that people suffered. In America there existed many different worlds, and while they overlapped, most people saw little past their own small world.
My world was safe. White people in a small New Mexico community. We never locked our doors. Everyone went to church on Sundays. Family values were strong. Innocence? Perhaps, but blind innocence. And were people really that blind? Or did they just have it good in the white middle class world and did not want those “other people” messing it up?
Yes, I remember those days quite well. If a person was white and middle classed, life was innocent and good. It seemed. Yet we had in the coal towns of eastern Kentucky and Tennessee and western North Carolina and West Virginia the most abject of poverty one can imagine.
The coal companies enslaved these people, who owed their souls to the Company Store. Mostly white, uneducated and wretchedly poor. Coal companies paid their workers with Script, not cash. Script was only good at the Company Store. Life depended on the coal company. John F. Kennedy fought to break those chains of slavery. He fought to bring the Appalachian poor into the 20th Century. Part of his presidential campaign was fought on that impoverished ground. When Kennedy died, he had broken the company chains but left the people adrift and Lyndon B. Johnson did precious little to help them. Hardly anything innocent about the strife of those poor people.
In my innocence, I recall singing songs at grade school like “Old Black Joe,” and reading the classic Mark Twain novels, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. In those unrevised editions we read in elementary school, Jim was not simply Jim but Nigger Jim. Aunt Polly’s slave that ran away, and Huck Finn went with him. While Mark Twain objected to slavery and wrote about Jim with great sympathy, he used the words, “Nigger” and “Negro” and “Nigra” and “Coloreds” without second thought. And use of that objectionable word and associated words that causes such great pain and represents the most deplorable aspect of American history was common place in my young world too.
My mother taught me from birth that all people are God’s beloved children, regardless of color or birth. Jesus loves us all. All the little children. She taught all of her children to see people as people, not us and them. The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King spoke of a dream that reflected those ideals. I share his dream today. As a nation we could desire nothing greater.
I will never forget my first painful encounter with bigotry. In my hometown we had few people of African origin. My parents, as well as my Aunt Winnie and Uncle Owen Hensley had a strong friendship with one such African-American family. Billy and Lillie Belle Johnson. They had a son and two daughters, Billy Junior, Jo Ella and Amanda. Billy worked at the school system as a custodian and Mrs. Johnson worked at various jobs. They were wonderful people. Gifted with wonderful musical talent. Jo Ella could sing like an angel.
My mother taught piano lessons, and had worked a trade agreement with Lillie Belle. Mrs. Johnson came to our home for piano lessons, and Amanda, who was my age, played with me in our backyard. We were small children and had a great friendship going. Until one day.
Some older boys who lived nearby saw Amanda in my backyard with me, and started calling her names. They made fun of her color. They threw rocks at both of us. I will never forget the pain I felt, and my anger, because it hurt little Amanda Johnson much worse than me. Horrible names to call such a sweet little girl. My playmate. My friend. It taught me a life-long lesson.
Mrs. Johnson stopped coming for piano lessons after that day.
I also recall at about that same time in my life, going to spend summers with my Grandmother Henderson. She lived in a small town in southern Oklahoma, surrounded by her sisters and other extended family of not just hers but my grandfather’s too. There were no black families in that small town. They were not accepted there. They had their town and the white people had our town.
Again, I was oblivious of it. I did not see the pain or poverty, secure in my white world. Yet, segregation became real to me one day as my grandmother and my Aunt Margaret, along with my cousin Ida Nell went shopping in Wichita Falls, Texas. There at Woolworth’s department store I went to get a drink from a water fountain. A store clerk stopped me and pointed to a sign above the fountain. It read, “Colored.” Then he led me to the other fountain that had a sign above it that read, “White Only.”
I began to notice more signs. Not just in Woolworth’s but everywhere in Wichita Falls. I asked my grandmother about it and she told me that’s just the way some people are. She reminded me that in the eyes of Jesus we are all the same. That’s the way we need to be, she said.
One of the greatest changes in America, a change that I believe made America better, were the first steps to break the walls of segregation that President Kennedy initiated. He and his brother, the Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, heard the voice of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King.
Under the leadership of President Kennedy, and carried forward after his death by Bobby Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson, the American people began to awaken to the ugliness and stupidity of racism and bigotry. It was not simply a matter of passing laws requiring Civil Rights, but a change in outlook and attitude drawn through the chaotic decades of the 1960s and 1970s.
When Kennedy died America’s innocence did not die. America was not innocent. America was complicit and blind. The changes that took place caused pain and upheaval.
Corporate greed took us to war in Viet Nam, and America bled and suffered even more in the division of the nation.
Sex, drugs, rock-and-roll undermined the strong system of family values, and damaged America to this day. No it was not the music, nor the free sex, nor even the illegal drugs themselves, but the attitudes that they bore with them, disregard of principles, loss of values and morals, and the increasing denial of God. Lies, deceit and personal greed prevailed, and took over every aspect of life, business and government.
Americans went to party and not to church. Divorce became easy and common.
A lot of goodness in America did die with President Kennedy, a victim of the awakening of America to its ugliness.
Today, we look around and see a much better America. Civil Rights have come light years ahead. Kennedy would be proud. Yet we have a long way to go in order to return America to its once high values where a family could leave the doors to its home unlocked without worry.