I noted these memories of November 22, 1963 at my old blog in 2004 and 2005.
It was about this time in the afternoon. I was in one of those lecture hall classes, a core curriculum survey of world history. The professor was so far away that I couldn't make out the details of his facial expression, but we could hear clearly because he used a microphone. Someone walked in from the right of the room, interrupted the lecture and spoke with the teacher. He then turned to the class and said, "We have just received word that the President has been shot in Dallas. We don't know whether he was killed, but he has been shot."
He paused for a few seconds. Nobody said anything. He then said, "Anyone who thinks that by killing the president they will stop his policies does not understand history. Shooting him will do nothing to stop what he was trying to do."
The place was Tallahassee, Florida and the campus had at that point been polarized over the picketing of two off-campus eating establishments because they refused to serve Negroes, as they were then respectfully called. In 1962 the graduate school at Florida State Uiversity had accepted its first black student. And that year, 1963, the first undergraduate student was attending classes.
I was only nineteen at the time, but something in me felt that if those restaurants, which only existed because the students and faculty of that school were there, refused to allow a black student to be served, something was badly out of balance. As a Southern Baptist I had already been struck by a contradiction of the same sort when an African student who came to America was not able to stay at a Baptist school because the dormitory was reserved for white students only. That had struck me wrong also.
Acting on a blind and unreasonable impulse that makes young people sometimes hard to endure because they can't understand why wrong things can't just change for the better, I allied myself with a group of students meeting weekly at a Unitarian Church at the edge of the campus, calling itself -- and it sounds so corny now -- The Liberal Forum. We had contributed to the closing of one of three restaurants, and were picketing the second. I was kicked out of my cheap off-campus room because of my activities and had put up with an even cheaper space, a garage apartment, shared with one of my radical peers.
The news of John Kennedy's assasination was devastating. The days which followed were among the saddest I can remember. The university arranged for continuous television coverage of the news and funeral, which of course included the subsequent killing of Lee Harvey Oswald. I still remember the endless playing of Chopin's funeral dirge and the funeral procession. It was the beginning of a turbulent chapter in modern history.
The teacher was right. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed the following year and the Public Accommodations section validated the reason that we were picketing.
Anyone old enough to remember will recall that time stood still. Those memories are frozen with every detail -- when and where we were, how the word was passed and how people around reacted. Later, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and M.L. King would have a similar impact, but it was the death of Jack Kennedy that shook the nation to its roots.
I sometimes think that the Sixties in all their madness were a visceral response to that event. Children who have lost parents are known to internalize that trauma as guilt. At least that was the theory a few years back and the basis of trauma counseling for kids. I have seen it expressed both in movies and real life so there must be something to it. It's an irrational reaction, of course. There is no reason that a child whose parent has died as the result of an accident or medical condition should feel personally responsible, but that is how it is perceived. It was my fault. I was not good enough. I should have done more to protect him or her. I must have done something wrong.
There are cases, though, where the child really did do something to bring about the loss of the parent. Playing with fire, distracting a driver, handling a loaded firearm... In these cases the guilt is earned. The parent really is lost because of the actions of the child. Forgiveness and release does not come as easily in these cases, but "life goes on," such as it is, as the pain of loss fades but never quite disappears. Such was the case of the Sixties.
Some of us glimpsed a better way. We knew there were social habits that had to change. We knew that a war was underway somewhere in South Asia that should not have been started. We knew that conscripting young men for that war was not the same as doing so for World War II. We knew that the government was not being faithful to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And we knew that if we didn't correct these wrongs then we would have to live with the results. Like the child whose horseplay in the back seat caused the death of a parent in a car wreck, we looked at life with exaggerated seriousness. We sought to correct problems in a generation that later we would learn are endemic to the human condition.
In the process we lost our innocence. And like the young person who has smoked the first pack of cigarettes, finished the first bottle of alcohol with his buddies, or waked up after that first night of lovemaking, a whole generation embarked on a decade or so of boundary-testing. We learned the hard way that boundaries serve a practical purpose. We learned that without boundaries there is no order. We learned that role-modeling good behavior is more important to generational development as saying Do as I say, not as I do.
Unfortunately, and this is the legacy of the Clinton years, we learned too late. It took nearly three decades for the Sixties to work its way through the system to become manifest at the highest office in government. Bill Clinton's presidency represents in many ways the culmination of what began in the Sixties, with all the excitement and hopes for the future, but also with its dark underside of moral turpitude. Having been there and done that I now hope that the lessons of that time have been learned and internalized. Unfortunately, it seems politically impossible for anyone to change his mind or behavior without being called a hypocrite. We saw that plainly in the last election with the pathetic and failed attempt of John Kerry to reconcile the contradictions of his past with mandates of the present.
For many of us the last year or two have been deja vu. I know that Iraq is not Vietnam and the attack on the WTC is not the same as Kennedy's assassination. White phosphorus is not the same as napalm and Abu Ghraib is not My Lai. But our behavior as a nation strikes me as inappropriate and irrational as that of the Sixties. I almost said the "children" of the Sixties, but it was not all done by young people. Many of those whom we followed, who guided our behavior, were adults. They were mature, solid, wholesome, responsible adults. Some were already old and would never live to see the results of what they were encouraging, not because they were killed or sacrificed, but simply because they were too old to live that long.
To the degree that adults can make the same mistakes as children, that happened to us as a nation in the Sixties. And in many ways, the same thing is happening again today.