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What the Kennedy assassination meant to us

50 years later, 10 reflections on JFK

On Nov. 22, 1963, 12:30 p.m. Central Standard Time, President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in front of a crowd of supporters as his presidential motorcade made its way through downtown Dallas. His wife Jacqueline was by his side. The shooter was a 24-year-old self-described Marxist named Lee Harvey Oswald.

A half-century later, the world's fascination with the 35th president of the United States hasn't waned. There is no shortage of television specials, books and documentary films that have been produced to mark the anniversary of his death.

The PBS NewsHour remembers the assassination of a president with a series of online and on-air features. We hosted a conversation with NewsHour co-founders Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, who covered the event in Dallas.

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It changed Dallas forever

For years, I lived and worked very close to where President Kennedy was assassinated. Every morning during my first days in Dallas, I walked by the site. I could even see the site from the building where I was employed. I eventually lived very close to where the assassin had resided and been captured.

For years, my wife and I could palpably feel the tragedy... We could still sense the aching loss remaining from Dallas 1963. There was a heavy quality in the air, something pressing down. We often wondered why the entire assassination site had not been hermetically sealed.

It's too easy to say that the city and some people in it had become haunted. But it clearly changed Dallas forever deep down to the very DNA. Life went on but never in the same way. It was like that sorrow and that quest to salvage some meaning had become a lingering companion.

Blessedly, something else began to emerge. Many people in Dallas began to see the tragedy as a burning reminder to choose reason, dialogue and the enduring human spirit -- to choose them over hate and vitriol.

Bill Minutaglio is co-author of the book "Dallas 1963" and a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.

Thousands of anti-Kennedy flyers were distributed in downtown Dallas in the days before the president's November 1963 visit.

Bound by duty, overcome
with grief

On Nov. 22, 1963, I had been in the Secret Service only 13 months. Along with every agent in the service that day, waves of grief and loss overwhelmed me. President Kennedy's murder was a colossal failure. Our very reason for being was to keep the president alive. And he was dead.

I thought it might take 100 years for us to redeem ourselves, to prove we were worthy to carry this responsibility. I believed our agency could not survive the loss of another president -- and maybe we would not deserve to survive. I vowed I would do anything to keep this from happening on my watch. But on March 30, 1981, when President Reagan was wounded and hung between life and death, it almost did.

All agents do the best we humanly can to carry out our serious mission. But every night that a president goes to sleep safely I know in my depths it is by the grace of God.

Jerry Parr is a retired Secret Service agent. He is credited with saving President Ronald Reagan's life on the day of his assassination attempt on March 30, 1981.

Secret Service Agent Jerry Parr, in a raincoat just left of the president, is photographed moments before he pushed President Ronald Reagan into the presidential limousine after he was shot in an assassination attempt outside the Washington Hilton Hotel.

The end of Camelot

Did she ever wear pink again? Or carry roses? These are the things we wonder.

There's so much to the Kennedy mystique and legacy. We're not sure there's anything left to say about two of the most examined people of the last century, but we can't help focusing on their tremendous style -- a marriage of New England moneyed Irish preppiness and French-infused finishing school couture that shouldn't have blended well but managed to become iconic. With John and Jacqueline Kennedy, the First Family became an aspirational image for the first time -- a magazine cover version of the presidency, perfectly suited for an ever-accelerating mass-media age of across-the-board middle class growth. That good-looking couple just down the street. Jack and Jackie.

But they were much more than that, of course, this refined, privileged and well-educated couple, who filled the White House with artists and antiques or managed the near-impossible task of charming the French people on their home soil, in their own language. The world watched them greet and host a succession of world leaders and great artists; Jack, charming everyone with his smile and ease in a tux, and Jacqueline, owning the room in opera gloves, a bouffant and one stunning gown after another. Pure post-war continental glamour. A presidency of style.

And in the end, when it was over and something needed to be said, some expression of grief or rage needed to be expressed, she remembered that the world looked to her and saw only the surface of who she is, focusing on her clothing above all else. When asked if she wanted to change out of her blood-encrusted pink suit on that interminable plane ride back to Washington from Dallas, she declined. "Let them see what they've done."

Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez write the fashion blog TomandLorenzo.com and are known for their in-depth analyses of '60s-era fashion on the AMC TV show "Mad Men."

President and Mrs. Kennedy arrive at Love Field in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

Holding on to Kennedy's image

Two trends define the historical memory of John F. Kennedy. First, Americans overwhelmingly rank Kennedy as one of their favorite presidents -- sometimes in the top 5, almost always in the top 10. Second, Americans overwhelmingly believe that Kennedy was killed as the result of a conspiracy.

On the surface, these trends seem to be at odds with each other. They offer competing views of the Kennedy White House. On the one hand, it's a place of limitless idealism, the Camelot of glamour and promise; on the other hand, it's a rank, dismal swamp fed by rivers of subterfuge and danger.

Kennedy himself, we now know, lied repeatedly to the American people about Cuba and the CIA, about his sexual affairs and the precarious state of his health. And yet this knowledge has done little to damage his popularity (though historians tend to be a bit less forgiving). It may be that Americans need both parts of the story to make sense of Kennedy's legacy. By channeling the darker side of Cold War politics into an array of assassination theories, we manage to hold on to the image of Kennedy as a young idealistic president, untainted by the corruptions of his age.

Beverly Gage is a professor of 20th-century U.S. history at Yale University.

Official White House portrait of President Kennedy

Only one story like this one

In its 192 years of publication, the Saturday Evening Post has produced only one issue dedicated to a single news story: its memorial issue for President Kennedy. The Post's editors began hurriedly assembling its contents over the weekend that followed the assassination. Because of long production times, the soonest their coverage could hit the newsstands was three weeks away, and only if it was on the press within 72 hours.

The editors feverishly gathered and reworked material into a 27-page section that would give readers a broad overview of the events and consequences. Among the stories were a detailed article about Lee Harvey Oswald and an account of how the extended Kennedy family had responded to the tragedy. There was a eulogy by Kennedy adviser Arthur Schlesinger, reassurances from former President Dwight Eisenhower and a profile of President Lyndon Johnson.

And there was the editor's confident assurance that the nation would, in time, learn the truth behind the "many curious rumors and unanswered questions" surrounding the assassination. It was a natural assumption in an age before Americans began believing in conspiracies and doubting government experts.

Jeff Nilsson is the director of archives at the Saturday Evening Post and an historian, author and researcher. Each week, Nilsson researches and writes a web feature that focuses on a different news item from America’s past as reported in the Saturday Evening Post. He is currently building a digital archive of the magazine that will span its 190 years of publication.

The Saturday Evening Post's "In memoriam" edition for the late president from Dec. 14, 1963.

A child's perspective

What could have been more fun for a second grader than coloring pictures of pilgrims on the Friday before Thanksgiving? I was concentrating on staying in the lines, as the nuns taught us, when my world turned upside down. Our teacher announced that President Kennedy had been shot.

From the moment my mother had placed me in front of JFK's podium at his 1960 Louisville campaign rally, I was obsessed with all things presidential, devouring children's books on Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. As we marched to church on Nov. 22, 1963, I heard a radio report that President Kennedy had been hit in the head. I knew that Lincoln died from such a wound, so I prayed the rosary fervently with my classmates. It was for naught. By the time we returned to the classroom, our teacher instructed us to say the day's closing prayers for our martyred president.

Mrs. Kennedy's bloodstained suit, the skittish riderless horse, Oswald's murder: all are seared in my memory. Those tragic days, portrayed on our family's TV, inspired my life's work as a scholar of the presidency and the Kennedy family.

Barbara Perry is a senior fellow in the Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia's Miller Center and project director of the Edward M. Kennedy Oral History. She is author of "Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch" and "Jacqueline Kennedy: First Lady of the New Frontier."

A child's biography of JFK, purchased for Barbara Perry by her mother a few months after the president's death.

Kennedy's legend lives on

President John F. Kennedy's shocking assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, dramatically transformed America's domestic and international landscape. Domestically, his successor, Lyndon Johnson, used the crisis triggered by the Kennedy assassination to help pass the long-stalled Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964. We can make the argument that the roughly one year between Kennedy's death and Johnson's landslide presidential election victory over Barry Goldwater represented a national valediction of sorts for Kennedy's legacy. In that year Johnson proposed, all in the name of the fallen president, a sweeping vision of American democracy that harkened back to the New Deal and was more progressive than the legislation that Kennedy had backed while in office.

In a very real sense, the Kennedy assassination produced a national sense of vertigo with Americans, regardless of age, race or background, questioning the very meaning of citizenship, freedom, security and justice.

The corresponding mythology surrounding JFK was inspired by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy's deft use of journalists in the immediate aftermath of the assassination. Her repeated comparison to the couple's brief time in the White House as being "Camelot" served as an enduring metaphor for not only the man, but of the times he lived in. Fifty years later, we have a much better appreciation for what Kennedy was and wasn't but, as happens with legends, the myth and aura of mystery that JFK evokes remains timeless.

Peniel Joseph is a professor of history at Tufts University and the author of the books "Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America" and "Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama."

President Kennedy gave a prime-time televised address on civil rights on June 11, 1963.

America's fleeting hero

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote: "Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy." We return to JFK because he tapped into a spirit of idealism and soaring aspiration in the American people. Our first television president. Americans felt they "knew" Kennedy and his vivacious family. In the flood of condolence messages received by Jacqueline Kennedy, many wrote that they felt as if a member of their own family had died. Just as we don't get over great losses in our personal lives -- in the sense that the loss is never undone -- so it had been with this young president who captured the imagination of the country for his brief 1,000 days. The admiration for Mrs. Kennedy certainly was real. She was 34 years old and had been only inches away from her husband when he was murdered. Suddenly a widow with two small children, she behaved with great dignity in the immediate aftermath of his death. The totality of this moment in American history the death of a popular, youthful, charismatic president and all that followed in the United States, became a part of the lived experience of millions of Americans. I doubt the memory of it or interest in it will die even when they do.

Ellen Fitzpatrick is a professor of history at the University of New Hampshire and author of the book "Letters to Jackie: Condolences from a Grieving Nation."

Jacqueline Kennedy and her family leave the U.S. Capitol during President Kennedy's state funeral.

Carrying on a commitment to
civil rights

"The bullet that killed Kennedy paralyzed the civil rights drive," one civil rights leader stated as he left a memorial for the slain president. "Everything's in a state of suspension for the moment," echoed the then president of the NAACP.

Such statements indicated how far the civil rights movement had pushed Kennedy since his election in 1960. Approaching the issue of racial equality primarily as a "political problem," the candidate balanced appeals to black voters with clear signals that he would not challenge segregation in the South. Civil rights activists forced the president's hand, however, by provoking confrontations with segregationists in Alabama and other southern states. Kennedy shifted in June of 1963, calling civil rights "moral issue" and urging Congress to adopt laws ensuring equal access to public accommodations and the right to vote. He went further that fall, endorsing an equal employment law and stronger enforcement measures that were pushed by the massive March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Ultimately, the assassination did not stall the effort to pass a civil rights law. This was due, in part, to President Lyndon Johnson's skill at making support for the law a way to honor his slain predecessor. But it was also a testament to the influence that the civil rights movement had developed through its struggle to win Kennedy's support.

William Jones is author of the book "The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights" and a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

President Kennedy met with the civil rights leaders who organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at the White House.

A bright light diminished

I met JFK at his sister Jean's wedding in 1956. The political gossip already had him running for the presidency. And in 1960 when he announced, I was part of the generation that rejoiced to have his fresh thinking, his youth, his political charisma and his idealism available as a candidate for the Democratic Party. I was running for Congress that year as the Democratic candidate in the Silk Stocking District of Manhattan. JFK always stayed at the Carlyle Hotel. My headquarters were a block away. He would often drop by and I would walk with him at his invitation to meet the voters.

In October 1960, I brought him to Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt's apartment on 74th Street where they had breakfast and discussed what she could do to support his campaign. After that meeting, she was one of his most enthusiastic backers. He inspired a whole generation to consider careers in public service -- the "highest calling", as he frequently said. There was an attitude that if something should be done, it could be done, and in the spirit of the New Frontier, it would be done.

Obviously he had political considerations in all of the major decisions he had to make, but he never avoided the tough ones. In the civil rights struggle, his speech following the Birmingham riots was like removing the shackles from a nation as he declared the race issue as a moral challenge for every American. In foreign affairs he brought a new attitude and a determination to resolve problems peacefully wherever possible. The Bay of Pigs was an object lesson in relation to the CIA and the military that he never forgot. It always impressed me greatly that in the missile crisis discussions, with every military leader in the room recommending, even demanding, the invasion of Cuba, JFK made his own decision to avoid military confrontation and to seek a diplomatic solution if it was at all possible. It was possible, and he did it. His great speech at American University on June 10, 1963, held the promise of ending the Cold War. In his leadership, America and the world found hope and inspiration. With his loss, the world turned; the brightness of the day was diminished.

I spoke with composer Igor Stravinsky in 1964 about the classical dimensions of JFK's murder in the context of ancient Greek drama -- the midday sun in Dallas; the magnificent young leader in the embrace of the people's love and cheers; the powerful father, Joe Kennedy, muted by fate watching his son become the most powerful man on earth; and then the thunder; the bolt of lightning and destiny. I believe Stravinsky later composed a musical statement that resembled that story.

Stravinsky's Elegy for JFK

William vanden Heuvel was special assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy. He is the author of the book "On His Own: Robert F. Kennedy, 1964-1968" and is a former U.S. Ambassador to the European offices of the U.N. and U.S. Deputy Ambassador to the U.N. He is featured in the documentary "JFK: A President Betrayed".

Then-Senator John Kennedy stands with New York City Mayor Robert Wagner Jr., left, former Sen. Herbert Lehman, center, and William vanden Heuvel, right, at a workers' rally in New York's Union Square in October 1960.

Posted November 21, 2013