Fifty years ago today, I set out just after dark with my mother and two friends to pay our respects to our slain president as he lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda. It was a last minute decision. I had begged my mother to take us. She thought it might be dangerous, but in the end, she knew that we would be witnesses to history. We put on our winter coats and climbed into our Rambler American. As we listened to coverage on the radio during the drive from Wheaton, Maryland into Washington, D.C., we wept.
I don’t remember how my mother found a place to park, but she did. As we walked towards the crowd, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing – a huge mass of people of all ages. The line was so long that we couldn’t see the front, and after we joined them, it was only minutes before we couldn’t see the end. I still remember thinking how “wide” the line was – maybe as many as 5 to 10 people abreast. I expected it to be single file, just like all the lines I waited in to receive Communion at church, or to buy something in a store. We stood four abreast – my mother, worried at first about our safety, but now knowing she had made it possible for us to be part of something we would never forget – myself, and my two close friends.
I remember being cold and wondering if we would ever actually get to the Capitol building. At first, we were caught up in our own little drama of waiting, shivering, hoping they didn’t turn us away because it was too late. But then something shifted for me. I began to notice what was going on around us. The crowd continued to grow and as it grew, I began to feel an intense solidarity with the people around me.
Local residents were arriving with blankets, hats, gloves to keep us warm. Others were bringing coffee and hot chocolate. People were singing. Strains of “We Shall Overcome” and “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Come Home” kept starting up in different parts of the line. Near us people had linked arms and were swaying together. Someone was singing “Amazing Grace” in a soft, clear voice.
We stood in line until dawn, entering the Capitol Rotunda as the sun was rising. After the hours of waiting, our moment in the rotunda went by so quickly. As we walked by the flag-draped casket, I tried to connect what I was seeing with the president I had loved and admired. I couldn’t do it. He had been vital, optimistic, inspiring. Now I was looking at a coffin and I just couldn’t believe that he was in it. I was so completely sad.
The assassination itself took away my innocence. Indeed, it took away the innocence of many in my generation, irretrievably lost to something that we had never imagined could happen. My view of the world was forever altered by a gunshot in Dallas on that Friday afternoon. Writing this now makes me realize how naive and protected my life, our lives, had been. I had been able to get to the age of 15, safe and secure, mostly carefree and happy. I knew there were problems in the country and the world, but I saw them as something I would help to solve, not something that would ever cause me personal, gut-wrenching grief.
I was 12 years old when John F Kennedy became president. Even though I was a pre-teen, I was captivated by him…his message, his youth, his vitality. For the first time, I began to think of how to contribute to society. He tapped into my idealism and made me feel that I could really make a difference in the world. I campaigned door-to-door for him (something I have done for my candidate in almost every presidential election since that one so many years ago.)
I watched his inauguration with friends. None of their parents had voted for Kennedy, but mine had, and I was so proud as he took his oath of office. I was young enough and innocent enough to believe that he could lead Americans into an almost perfect era of social justice and peace in the world. I believed in the New Frontier and I believed in the USA. I knew we had our problems. There was no way to grow up close to Washington and not realize that black people had been treated unfairly in this country for as long as they had been here. Just as there was no way to live near DC and be unaware of poverty. But I believed that Kennedy wanted to solve these problems and that he could
I was too young to understand all the complexities of domestic policy and foreign affairs. There was so much I did not know. What I did know was that there were still injustices in our society and that there was a president who wanted to fix these things. Not just here, but abroad. Not only that – he actually wanted young people to help him, and I wanted with all my heart to be one of those young people.
He was so influential in shaping my values that all these years later, knowing all that I know now, I still have those values. I still want the same things for our country and I still want to be part of the solution. My scope of concern is wider now and the specific details are different – more mature, more aware of complexity, and yet, still framed by the idealism that he touched and nurtured. An idealism that couldn’t be extinguished with a gun.
But my innocence was a different matter. It was gone. Never to return. It didn’t have a chance. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, Vietnam, the Democratic National Convention, Kent State … and so much more. It changed the way I looked at the past as well as the present. When innocence is lost it re-shapes the way you see the world.
Yet, that night at the Capitol gave me something I never had before. I felt that I was part of something so much bigger than myself. I was part of a crowd that shared the same sorrow – that had shared the same hope for a better world – and I knew that some of us would want to keep working together for that better world. Seeing all those people come to stand all night in the freezing cold in order to pay their respects taught me something. We were there, not just to our honor our slain president, but also to comfort each other. We stood together because we needed each other even more than we needed to walk past his casket. All these years later, we are re-living those days because we still need each other.
That was always part of JFK’s message – the New Frontier was about forging ahead together. These are the last lines of the speech that he was to give the night he died:
“Neither the fanatics nor the faint-hearted are needed. And our duty as a Party is not to Party alone, but to the nation, and indeed, to all mankind. Our duty is not merely the preservation of politic power, but the preservation of peace and freedom.
So let us not be petty when our cause is so great. Let us not quarrel amongst ourselves when our Nation’s future is at stake.
Let us stand together with renewed confidence in our cause – united in our heritage of the past and our hopes for the future – and determined that land we love shall lead all mankind into new frontiers of peace and abundance.”
In the many years that followed, we may have picked the part of his message that resonates for us each of us personally – I ended up being a pacifist, an advocate for social justice and environmentalist – but his message of working together is still one of his most important legacies. I hope this 50th anniversary helps us remember that.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MQxqpYs_JfQ (somehow we all knew it was his favorite song)