Memories and Life Lessons from November 22, 1963

When I asked my grandchildren this week if they knew what important event in American history happened on November 22 they of course didn’t know. They weren’t born until 40 years after JFK was gunned down on that dark day 53 years ago. And what’s more the parents of my grandchildren weren’t alive in 1963 either. What a difference a generation or two makes.

It was a watershed moment in American history for those of us who were alive and old enough to understand or sense that something big had happened. Memories of where we were when we first heard about the assassination are indelible. I was a senior in high school sitting in 7th period Algebra class next to a window that overlooked the faculty parking lot of our school. I happened to be looking out the window (apologies to Mr. Gross our teacher) when I saw Mr. Ratliff our principal pull into the parking lot at well over the speed limit and run from his car into the office. I knew that something major was wrong. I had never seen Mr. Ratliff run anywhere before. In just a few seconds the PA system in our class room crackled to life. Mr. Ratliff told us he had just heard on the radio that President Kennedy and Governor John Connally had been shot in Dallas.

Mr. Ratliff turned the radio on over the PA and for the rest of that school day all we did was listen to the news as it emerged from Dallas. When the bell rang to change classes we moved in solemn silence to our next classroom and continued quietly listening to the unbelievable news that the president was dead. I don’t remember any teachers or students saying anything. When the final bell of the day rang we again moved quietly to our lockers and left the building to go home and continue watching non-stop coverage on TV as Vice-President Johnson took the oath of office on Air Force One and into the night until we witnessed the President’s blood stained widow and his brothers escort the casket off of the Presidential jet in Washington D.C.

I just finished my previous blog post yesterday when I saw a picture on Facebook of the iconic screen shot of CBS television breaking into a soap opera so Walter Cronkite could tell the nation what was unfolding in the nation’s turbulent political atmosphere which was a soap opera in its own right. These were the days of Civil Rights movement and the Cold War. The McCarthy crusade on “un-American activities” was still a recent memory and the Cuban missile crisis had us all on the brink of nuclear destruction only a year before. Kennedy had won a highly contested bitter election three years earlier with charges of voter fraud and a torrent of religious prejudice because he was a Roman Catholic. He was in Dallas that day running for reelection.

What I didn’t know in 1963 as a naïve teenager in a rural Ohio community was that there were plenty of signs of danger in Dallas. Hatred of Kennedy was not hidden, and JFK’s closest advisers urged him not to make that campaign trip because they feared for his safety. That hatred and its tragic outcome are eerily reminiscent of today’s political atmosphere and how much we need to learn from the lessons of history.

We learned too late that November that it was not safe for the President to ride around in an open convertible. Denial of obvious dangers because of the animosity toward Kennedy was a factor in his death just as denial of the dangers of violence against the President contributed to the assassination of James Garfield just months after he took office in 1981. Even though Lincoln’s assassination was only 15 years earlier people we reluctant to believe that it could happen again. Lincoln’s death was written off as a casualty of the Civil War, and that conflict was over, right? So Garfield had no real protection in the D.C. train station where he was shot.

There have been dozens of conspiracy theories about if and why Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK and why he was gunned down on live television just two days after Kennedy died. We may never know all of the answers to those questions, but this we do know and it’s a lesson we need to learn and relearn in every generation. Words and images have power. They can be used to heal or harm. Actions have their conception in thoughts and feelings expressed in language. Hateful words, chants, and slogans when taken to their logical conclusion give birth to acts of violence. In our social media age where many people’s primary source of “information” comes from posts and tweets the power of images and words is magnified 100’s of times more than they were in 1963. As hard as it is for my grandchildren to believe, there were only three major networks that provided us with our news 50 years ago.

Today rumors and propaganda go viral in a matter of minutes, and, as I said in an earlier post this week, the word “viral” is loaded with ironic significance. A virus in our bodies is harmful or even deadly, and a virus in my hard drive can be fatal to my computer. Both kinds of viruses can be contagious and have devastating consequences, e.g. Zika and HIV. Posts on social media can also have disastrous effects when they go viral. They are immediately out of the control of the author because even if one offers a correction or an apology or deletes the item it is already at large in cyber space and cannot be stopped from spreading across the country and around the world in a matter minutes.

The only vaccine for cyber viruses is to use extreme caution in fact-checking and verifying information before sending in out. None of us is immune from getting caught up in the emotion of a heated campaign or argument and saying things we regret. In an old fashioned face-to-face argument we have non-verbal or verbal feedback from other participants in the interchange that are not available to us if we go on an on-line rant. Face-to-face I know who is involved in the discussion and can reach out to those people to apologize or continue the discussion in a more rational moment. But if I post or share something hurtful on Facebook I have no idea who will see it or how many times it will get reposted. WordPress stats tells me that my blog posts get read at times as far away as South Africa and China, and while that is very exciting it is also a daunting reminder of the power and responsibility we all have to use our words with great care.

So now 53 years after those shots heard around the world from Daley Plaza in Dallas we can still learn critically important lessons. Modern communication techniques are a huge blessing that no one in my Algebra class that day in 1963 could even begin to imagine. They empower us with access to information at our fingertips that could only be found in encyclopedias and libraries back then. That information was obviously out of date before it could be printed and distributed. Today’s apps can translate languages to build bridges of communication across culture, enhance education, transform global commerce, and help us find where we are and how to get where we’re going, even in unfamiliar territory. I was in Boston earlier this year and might still be lost there today if it were not for the amazing ability of my phone to tell me how to get anywhere I wanted to go in that challenging maze of streets. It even told me which bus or subway to take and when it would arrive at my stop.

In 1963 no one but the creator of Dick Tracy could even dream of what we take for granted today. We all carry with us in our phones more computer power than Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins took with them to the alien surface of the moon in 1969. In many ways the world we live in today is as strange and confusing to us as the lunar surface was to those Astronauts. And yet some things about our human condition remain constant through the ages and we forget them at our peril. Ever since his thoughts and feelings of jealousy drove Cain to kill his brother Abel way back in the second generation of humankind we have known that what we think and say affects what we do and how we treat each other.

In today’s multicultural, diverse global village our devices that we rely on today for most of our knowledge and information should all come with a big warning: “Use With Extreme Caution.” And for us Christians there should be a footnote citing Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insul a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:21-24, NRSV)