So it has been 40 years—almost as long as he lived. John F. Kennedy was 46 when he was shot while sitting next to his wife, Jacqueline, in the back seat of a Lincoln Continental convertible on Elm Street in Dallas at noon. The president was visiting Texas to bolster his standing in the South. He was declared dead an hour later at ParklandMemorialHospital. Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, aboard Air Force One at Dallas’ Love Field, was sworn in as the chief executive before flying to Washington. JFKwas the 35th president and the fourth to be assassinated. His 1,000 days in office constituted the seventh briefest term.
Shock, anger, sorrow—words hardly convey the cataclysm of November 22, 1963, and its aftermath. Lee Harvey Oswald, a 24-year-old admirer of Soviet Communism, fired a rifle from a window of the Texas School Book Depository building where he worked as a laborer. He was arrested later that day for assassinating the president, wounding Texas governor John Connally, who rode in the same car, and slaying a policeman. Two days later, Oswald was shot to death in a police station basement by nightclub owner Jack Ruby in front of news photographers and television cameramen, adding to the chaos and accentuating TV’s new eminence as a provider of shared experience. Then came the days of mourning for JFK. They are documented in an album of unforgotten images—the tens of thousands of people waiting to view the flag-draped coffin in the Capitol Rotunda, the riderless horse in the funeral cortege, the veiled widow and her saluting 3-year-old son, the eternal flame.
The blow was so devastating partly because, as New York Times reporter Tom Wicker put it at the time, JFK was the “herald of a new generation of American purpose.” Theodore Sorensen, the president’s special counsel, lamented the “incalculable loss of the future.” Yet the future arrived anyway, and Kennedy helped set in motion some of its more notable turns, such as civil rights legislation, the moon landing and the Vietnam War. His is a complex legacy that historians continue to weigh—his deft handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis balanced against the debacle of the Bay of Pigs invasion, and so on—particularly in the light of new information about his concealed health problems and extramarital affairs.
The assassination has resounded through the decades, causing Americans to wonder how the nation might be different had Kennedy lived. Where were you when it happened? If the question is threadbare, that’s only because people have long needed to ask it, not only to ameliorate the grief and dismay but also, more important, to navigate history. We recently asked a number of prominent Americans what they remember of JFK’s death and what they make of his legacy. Here, their responses.
78, BLUES ARTIST
The word was out there was a young senator who might become president. He was a handsome gentleman, and the ladies liked him. Usually when you’ve got the ladies on your side, it helps. I think he had most of the ladies on his side. But then he had a lot of the men too. The band and I were on the bus. We were just pulling up to the Persian Hotel in Chicago, Illinois. We were playing poker. We had the TV on—a local station.
We thought we’d lost everything. I hadn’t felt that way ever, the way he made me feel. Being a citizen, you love your country, and you love the president and you stand behind him, but when John F. Kennedy came in, you wanted to help. That’s what he made you feel like. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” My God, that stirred me up. The things he did in office made me love him forever. He made it possible for black kids to go to schools that had been closing the doors on them. It wasn’t always thinking in terms of politics. It wasn’t always the smartest thing to do, but it was the right thing to do.
He did more for black people than President Truman did. Knowing that, just thinking about it now, I almost cry again. He gave us confidence that the country loved us too. We felt like real citizens. He gave us a feeling to fight for our rights. I thought it would probably be like that for the rest of my life.
80, CHAIRMAN AND CEO OF VIACOM, THE ENTERTAINMENT CONGLOMERATE
I did know the president fairly well. At the time, I was president of the major trade organization in our industry, Theater Owners of America. It represented all the exhibitors in the United States. In the South, black people were being turned away at theaters. I have a telegram from him:May 28, 1963. I am meeting with a group of business leaders to discuss some aspects of the difficulties experienced by minority groups in many of our cities in securing employment and equal access to facilities and services generally available to the public. These subjects merit serious and immediate attention, and I would be pleased to have you attend the meeting to be held in the East Room of the White House. Please advise whether you will be able to attend. John F. Kennedy. He was always filled with energy. He was a fighter for things that weren’t as they should be.