November 22, 1963 class was interrupted by the intercom announcement. “President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas and has been pronounced dead.”
The fourth grade classroom in Clinton, Mississippi exploded in gasps, tears, and yes, cheers.
Some even gleefully said “the n-lover is dead!”
Yes it sounds horrific, 9 year olds rejoicing in the murder of the president of the United States. If I bring it up in a group of peers everyone agrees it was unforgivable and horrible. Everyone heard it but no one seems to have done it. But I remember clearly… guilty as charged. Time has not erased the memory nor has it expunged the sting.
Kennedy was a Yankee, he was a Catholic, he was a Democrat, his family was rich from questionable means. He stole the election from Nixon in 1960 and he betrayed the anticommunists at the Bay of Pigs. The standoff with Nikita Khrushchev was all his fault.
He was everything we hated…everything.
“Those damn Kennedys think they rule the world.” We were Rebels, Johnny Rebs, we listened to Rebel Radio, we cheered for the Ole Miss Rebels, we flew a Rebel flag. Some of us didn’t even like Mickey Mantle because he played for a team called Yankees. At nine we were still playing with plastic soldiers carefully setting them up in battle scenes and blowing them to pieces with fireworks. But in our battles the Yankees never won, Pickett’s charge prevailed. Vicksburg never surrendered. The mythology was strong, “the South will rise again!”
Gray was our color, but life was black and white. Everything was neatly arranged and little signs warned you not to transgress. The water fountain at the zoo had a sign, “white only,” another announced “colored.” The bathrooms were likewise, “white” and “colored.” Restaurants served whites in the front but set up tables for coloreds in the storerooms. The state fair was for the whites except on Friday night, that was set apart for the ‘colored folk.’ Everything was black and white, it was all very clear and everyone knew their place. It was important to stay in your place. This is the way it was, the way it had always been, the way it should be. No one really said it, but the implication was pretty clear. Contact was dangerous and defiling. Yes we all went to Sunday School and read about the lepers, the Samaritans and the prejudice but we didn’t see a connection. It was different. Right? Fear is strong but so reasonable, so practical.
1962 was fresh in our minds. Ole Miss was invaded by Federal troops. JFK sent Yankee, troops to the Rebel campus to force integration. James Meredith enrolled in Ole Miss. Despite the promises and efforts of Governor Ross Barnett the President of the United States had sent guns to subdue us. Not since the Civil War had Union troops occupied our land. His actions created more problems than they solved as we saw it. They incited riots, people died. On top of it all our beloved Ole Miss Rebel football team sailed to an undefeated season. Yankee prejudice kept them from a national title. Such was the narrative in our black and white world.
That fourth grade classroom was white. JFK was black, dark, sinister and he needed to go. Now he was gone. You’re damn right we were glad. At nine you are very clear about such things. What followed was a long grizzly weekend of TV coverage. The mood of the nation did not reflect that schoolroom scene. The days unfolded slowly like a horse drawn cart in a funeral procession. They climaxed with a small son and a salute. A little boy’s tribute to a fallen father.
Those weekend images challenged the mythology, black and white values began to vanish. Who was this man whose death we celebrated? And who was that nine year old boy? I remember them clearly, very clearly, both are gone now. Gone too is that black and white world, and the longing for gray revival.
Fifty years have passed.
President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, this 59 year old man salutes you, mourns your untimely death and cheers your life.