Saturday, November 22, 2008

On November 22, We Weep

Little or no mention in today’s newspapers regarding the assassination of John Kennedy -- very different from the evening papers of November 22, 1963.

During English class that day, the principal announced over the school’s public address system that the President had been shot and that we would be dismissed early. The boys all became silent; most of the girls started to cry.

I delivered an evening newspaper. On this afternoon, we newsboys waited for the papers to arrive. They reached the distribution point about an hour and a half late. The editors only had enough time to splice a special headline story on to the first page. Eerily, the rest of the paper contains all the “America as usual” stories that would have run anyway that day.

Kennedy served less than three years of his first term. Some consider his impact significant. Others contend that, despite the notable achievement of even becoming elected (defeating Richard Nixon in a close race, becoming the first Roman Catholic President, etc.), and despite efforts he initiated early in his presidency (notably civil rights efforts, or, as one T.V. commentator put it in 1963, “dealing with the fomenting Negro crisis”), he actually accomplished very little.

In any case, the events of the 1960s left indelible marks on all of us who had a commitment to social issues and community welfare. Tragic murders of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, other civil rights activists, students at Kent State, and others, shocked us. The land of the free was not supposed to experience these types of events. Protests and other acts of support for civil rights and against the War in Vietnam became a daily focus.

The “up” events of the time created a sense of optimism and hope. They stimulated ideas for a new, changed, improved world. The “down” events were discouraging, depressing, and led to soul-searching. However, they had the effect, for many of us, to increase – not decrease – our determination to pursue the dream of a better political and social future. What we learned and experienced during the decade convinced many of us to enter the human services field, to look for ways to strengthen communities, and to mold inclusive, creative political philosophies that we could translate into just social policies.

Any parallels to the election of Barack Obama? Both Kennedy and Obama, as Presidents-elect, were intelligent, ground-breaking individuals. Kennedy broke the religion barrier (no Internet at the time, but rumors circulated that, “if he’s elected, he will do what the Pope tells him to do”). Obama broke the race barrier (despite many different rumors about his background and motivations, and what he might really do once in office).

One of the newspapers which I saved from the days after the assassination was the November 24th edition of the New York Sunday Herald Tribune. Art Buchwald wrote a column that has appeared in bits and pieces in many places since then (including the Congressional Record). Excerpts from the beginning and end appear below.

We Weep

We weep for our President who died for his country.
We weep for his wife and for his children.
We weep for his mother and father and brothers and sisters.
We weep for the millions of people who are weeping for him.
We weep for Americans, that this could happen in our country.
We weep for the Europeans
And the Africans
And the Asians
And people in every corner of the globe who saw in him a hope for the future and a chance for mankind.
We weep for our children and their children and everyone’s children, for he was charting their destinies as he was charting ours…
We weep for all the tortured and warped people who could not accept the decent things he stood for.
And we weep for all the hatred and prejudice that fill the hearts of such a small segment of our society.
We weep because there is nothing else we can do,
Except curse those who would destroy a man in hopes of destroying all of us.

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