Thursday, November 22, 2007

November 22, A Day I Can't Forget

Today’s current generation may well be defined by 9/11 for the rest of its life the way my parents’ generation was irrevocably shaped by December 7. For my own generation, the unforgetable date was November 22, the day in 1963 that John F. Kennedy was assassinated as his motorcade drove past the Texas Book Repository in Dallas. That anniversary comes and goes with a certain memory of being stunned and never quite being the same again.

Just after lunch on Nov. 22, 1963, I was standing at my desk in the city room of The Atlanta Journal where I worked as a very junior reporter for that newspaper. I had my desk telephone to my ear and was talking to my Daddy. He often made a point of mentioning to me that one of his friends would show him an article in the Atlanta Journal with a By-Line of the same name as his. These articles might be about anything that was the news of the day, but much of the news of those days was about the end of racial segregation in its many forms. The Atlanta newspapers were known to be supporting it. My Daddy’s friends were not. Nor was he. Still, he liked to call me at work and pass a few minutes. I always had the sense, despite everything, he was proud of what I did. As we spoke on the telephone that after-lunch hour on Nov. 22, 1963, the bells on the teletype machines in the newsroom sounded an alarm. Somebody shouted something, and I said to my Daddy, “I’ve got to go. The President has just been shot.” I’ll never forget the moment or the words.

In a matter of minutes, the newspaper shifted gears. Just like in the old movies. I actually heard, “Stop The Presses.” One of my regular jobs was to do the daily feature called the “Street Poll.” Take a photographer to the streets of downtown Atlanta and ask six or eight people their opinions on some current topic. That day, at that hour, Harold E. Davis, City Editor of The Journal, dispatched me immediately to get people-in-the-street quotes on this obviously historic event. By the time I returned from collecting these reactions on the corner of Forsyth and Marietta Streets, John F. Kennedy was dead. My minor journalistic contribution to a historic edition of The Atlanta Journal ran on page one, down at the bottom of the page, well below the banner headline “KENNEDY KILLED” and the masthead “EXTRA.”

The assassination of John F. Kennedy, actual dates notwithstanding, ended the era of the 1950’s and began the 1960’s. It ushered in a parade of nonsense, typified by explaining that Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln, and President Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy, and somehow this information was worthy of consideration. Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, The Warren Commission, Jim Garrison, Oliver Stone. What a cast of characters! Maximum heat, minimum light. The Kennedy Administration was no Camelot. After the Peace Corps, his New Frontier proposals bogged down in Congress. Only national mourning and the legislative skills of Lyndon Johnson passed the 1964 Civil Rights Bill.

I watched a documentary on TV the other night about the assassination of President Kennedy. For 40-plus years, I’ve never been able to keep my eyes off those familiar, old grainy black and white television recordings, newspaper photographs, and 8mm home-movies turned historical documents. Ruby shooting Oswald. Gruesome impact of the bullet that took the back of the President’s head off. Mrs. Kennedy’s heroism, beginning with her pulling the Secret Service Agent into the open-top car as it rushed the wounded President to the hospital. The full color newsreels of the handsome, young President and his much photographed, thirty-something wife arriving in Texas that morning and walking down the stairs of the airplane, she in her pink suit, spotless.

Copyright 2007 by William C. Cotter

6 comments:

Tina said...

I was living in Texas at the time. We were in faculty apartments. A friend from a downstairs apartment ran upstairs, knocked on our apartment door, and hollered "Turn on your TV--they've killed our president!" Then she ran back to her own place. Consider the word "they." Her first impression was that somehow this attack had been orchestrated by Kennedy's political enemies. The South, in those days, was still so passionate about race issues that one never knew what to expect. Liberal-leaning faculty members in the South knew exactly what was meant by "they." As the curious story of who actually commited the murder began to unravel, the news became, as Alice said "curiouser and curioser." I will never forget the image of Lee Harvey Oswald's body reacting to the shot fired by Jack Ruby.

jackie said...

I guess everyone who was alive at that time remembers what they were doing when Kennedy was shot. You were part of history and that is neat. I remember Harold Davis because he taught at GSU. As I remember he seemed like a nice man.

Paw Paw Bill said...

Yes, Harold Davis, who was City Editor of The Atlanta Journal when I worked there, later became the Chairman of the Journalism Department at Georgia State University. He was indeed a nice man and a natural-born teacher, a mentor, in the currently popular term. I needed plenty of mentoring, and I was lucky to have been in the same world with Harold Davis. For a long time, I have had the idea of writing something that might be called, "All My Fathers." This would consist of stories and descriptions about several people in my life who have served as mentors, role models, and surrogate fathers. Maybe this blog will eventually be a place for those writings.

sunny said...

Adam was grinning ear-to-ear as he read your blog about his band! I was crying just now as I read the JFK blog.

Mandi said...

While you were working at the paper, My mother was sitting on the toliet at your Mama's apt. holding me. I was all of 9 months old at the time. Only my Mother, your sister would pass on that tale... She said she yelled out to Nana,and Martha, oh my god...they killed the president.. everyone cried...

Paw Paw Bill said...

Well, I do not know why I've never heard that story, but it certainly sounds like the way my sister would have told it.

 

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