Sunday, November 22, 2009

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 ongoing assignments 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


Tina said...

Seeing Jack Ruby shoot Oswald on live TV was so awful & I still wonder about mafia involvement. I was living in Texas at the time, in faculty apartments, and a friend of mine, also the wife of a professor, ran upstairs and knocked on our door. "Turn on the TV," she said, "they've shot our President."And then she ran back downstairs.

wayne said...

I certainly agree. I was outside the music library at Northwestern, smoking.

annette cotter said...

I was walking thru Joske's Dept. Store in Houston, Texas, with my husband and son, about to buy a new T-V. Got to see the coverage on about 20 T-Vs at once. I was 6 months pregnant. Named the baby boy John Riley....John, after Kennedy--Riley, after my daddy (a George Wallace delegate to the Miami convention). My daddy never really got comfortable with this co-mingling.


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