NOVEMBER 22, 1963
A very sad story with very great meaning
I remember November 22, 1963 as though it happened yesterday.
I was eleven years old. I don’t remember who came into our classroom at Houston’s Mark Twain Elementary School and told us the president had been shot, but I remember my teacher turned away from the class and started to cry. I took it on myself to run out of the room, open the doors in several other classrooms and announce the news. I have no idea why I thought I should do that. I just did.
Violence has become so normalized in America that nothing like that could happen now and create the kind of shockwaves it did then. JFK’s murder was inconceivable, like a gut punch to the entire country. It was like 9/11 in many ways - a horror and a tragedy - but in significant ways it was also different. With both events we lost the world as we had known it, but with JFK’s death it felt like we had lost a part of ourselves. With Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinated five years later, America would never be the same. Those men held aloft the dreams of a generation, and it felt when they died that our dreams had died too.
I was only 11 years old when Kennedy was killed; the exact age both in years and months that my daughter was on 9/11. Both Kennedys were in their early 40s when they died, and Dr. King was 39. The boomers get a lot of understandable flack for the irresponsible way we’ve wielded power over the last fifty years, but there is no way to overestimate the trauma, the collective PTSD, of having our leaders literally shot and killed in front of our eyes.
A loud unspoken message came with those murders: we were to leave the public sector alone. We could do whatever we wanted in the private sector, but we were to leave the public sector to whomever wanted to control it so badly that they were willing to kill in order to do so. And in case the message hadn’t quite hit home, college students at Kent State University were shot protesting the war. By then the message was clear: “Do as you’re told, or we might kill you too.” The bullets that struck the Kennedys, King, and the students at Kent State psychically struck us all.
An entire generation grew up without the guidance of the elder brothers that King and the Kennedys were to us, and it shows in what has been in many ways our stunted development. It’s not an accident that to this very day, we still don’t know the deeper truths behind who killed any of them. But we suspect. And the suspicion itself has scorched our souls.
With the anniversary of most people’s deaths, with each passing year it’s a bit easier to accept. But with the Kennedys and King it somehow gets worse every year. November 22 isn’t just a day of remembrance, or simply a day of grief over something that happened almost six decades ago. It’s a day of grief over what’s been happening ever since. Everything we feared would happen when they died has happened.
But it also occurred to me a few years ago that if the Kennedys and King had lived, by now they would be very old men. They would have passed the baton and they would deserve a rest. It would be time for us to say, “Thank you for what you showed us. Now we’ll take it from here.” Neither they nor we were allowed that transition, and one can only imagine what the world would be now had fate not been what it was. But every generation has its pain and its glory, its challenges and its wisdom. Ours has been what ours has been.
As the boomers age, we can look back and understand our story more deeply than we could understand it while it was happening. I’ve heard it said that in youth you learn and in age you understand. We were frozen in a collective state of subconscious fear, told that our safety lay in being good capitalists, feeding the machine instead of raging against it; in Dr. King’s words, being “silent about things that matter most.” As my father would say, we let the bastards get to us. In the final analysis, a most rambunctious generation simply did as we were told.
But while our generational destiny was waylaid, perhaps it is not yet lost. I see it in the eyes of my peers. For something happens to your soul when you begin to glimpse twilight; you’d like to get it right before you die. For many, the thought that we could die knowing that we failed to do what in our hearts we know we were born to do, is actually scarier than the thought that they might kill us if we do.
There is an intergenerational revolutionary spirit rising up in America today, with many who are young and many who are old now resonating like a perfect third. We are notes that somehow know one another. The younger you are the more you know certain things, and the older you are the more you know other things. The young know more about what’s happening now. An older generation is the keeper of our stories, and stories should be passed on like torches that light the way. November 22, 1963, is a very sad story with very great meaning. It is a story that should always be told.
After the death of the president, Bobby Kennedy said he was moved by these words of the ancient Greek philosopher Aeschylus:
He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.
This will always be a day of sadness for those whose lives were touched by the enormity of the Kennedy assassination. A terrible pain was visited on the country that day, a pain that in many ways has never ended but has taken different forms as the years have gone by. The pain of every generation since has been a legacy of the tears we cried that day. But as we have suffered, perhaps we have also grown. In our despair, even against our will, may there come wisdom by the awful grace of God.