Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Day the President Was Shot

The day President John F. Kennedy was shot we lost First Lady 

Jacqueline Kennedy, who did not die on Friday, November 22, 1963, but the nation lost her as our First Lady, half of the power couple that would end Jim Crow laws in America.

Jacqueline Kennedy : Historic Conversations on Life
with John F. Kennedy Book with AUDIO Interview
8CDs Boxed set [Hardcover] [Audio CD] (Jacqueline Kennedy)

It started out as such a special day at our school. We were assembled in the auditorium to watch the television coverage of President and Mrs. Kennedy's visit to Dallas. All the students were excited because they were just up the road  from us in Dallas, so close. At the time, I was attending an overcrowded, all-black public school, established under Jim Crow, laws  and traditions, typical of the era. Because we were looking forward to the end of segregation, our enthusiasm for this young president and his wife was very high in my school, as it was in other black schools and communities across the nation. "Nearly 100 years after the Civil War was supposed to end slavery," said my grandmother, Bigmama. "It may be near."

Young people in my school and old people at home  expected President Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy to do something for us, to help us in some way. There was finally hope in the White House with this young and seemingly modern, forward-thinking couple, following Dwight Eisenhower, who would not commit to civil rights, except in the most superficial way. 

Down with the old ways of thinking about race, we thought. and in with new race relations in America. We saw the end to Jim Crow in focus. When I think back on it, we kids were far too optimistic about our future. But that did not stop us from preparing for it. We studied, read and dreamed higher than our parents permitted themselves to dream. We kids thought it was time for change, especially after Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Woolworth Sit-ins, the Freedom Riders and other demonstrations. We even questioned our parents about their lack of ambition. We were so dumb that we did not see the road our parents had prepared for us.

As kids, we were not sure what form the President and First Lady's help would take, but we had our expectations that President Kennedy would help us get rid of Jim Crow laws and that his the First Lady would encourage him in this endeavor. We kids knew Jim Crow laws were meant to keep us in a certain place in society. "A low place," my grandmother said.

The white only and colored only signs of segregation, cloaked in antiquated separate but equal laws meant to keep the races apart, were painted on and hung in every public building and city park in town, and ours was not the only town in America that was segregated. In addition, segregation in housing, employment, education and other services were segregated in most of the rest of the nation's cities and small towns.

Rosa Parks & Martin Luther King
Montgomery Bus Boycott
My mother read a lot and made me read. She kept up with news on court decisions she thought may affect my education--Brown v the Board of Education and others. She respected Thurgood Marshall and thought he was good looking. I thought so, too. 

My mother took national magazines, black and mainstream, and black newspapers from cities around the country that covered protests, such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott, sparked by Rosa Parks and led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I remember the Houston Informer, which is still in business, believed to be the oldest black newspaper published west of the Mississippi River in 1893. We had newspapers from New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and other places. My mother read them all.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott began in December 1955 and lasted for more than 300 days. 

We had gotten our first television by then, but there were virtually no news broadcasts, only fifteen minutes devoted to local news, which in our community was dominated by farming news. Fifteen minutes was all that was devoted to national news in the evening, as well. However, national news was committing most of their time to civil rights demonstrations.

Perhaps we kids and the grownups, too, were thinking President John F. Kennedy understood our predicament better than some of the past presidents. It wasn't like Kennedy was black or brown, but his religion made him different. And even if his religion was different from ours and he was also white and rich, we still felt he had more in common with us than the rest who had lived in the White House, except, maybe, Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman, both of whom were poor.

My mother said Mr. and Mrs. Truman were so poor they never owned their own home. That was poorer than us. We owned our own home. When Mr. Truman was done in Washington, he and Bess retired to her mother's home in Independence, Missouri, now the location of the Truman Presidential Library and Museum. 

My father, a World War II (WWII) veteran of the Pacific Theater, said President Truman, a World War I veteran, integrated the military after WWII. My father said Mr. Kennedy, also a WWII veteran, was in a position to do a lot more on "this race situation" because Kennedy knew what it was like to be different and discriminated against. After all, tolerance for his Irish-Catholic religion and background was still low in the United States, especially in the Deep South., where Kennedy was regarded no higher than the black people he pledged to help.

We gave Lincoln credit for freeing the slaves, but that was so long ago and who  knows what went on back then? What was supposed to change still had not changed in 100 years.

Black, brown  and other marginalized people still were not able to vote, get a decent education, receive health care, secure a good-paying job, order a meal in a restaurant or use a public restroom. The system was built on Jim Crows laws that were against most people of color. From our perspective, the Civil War had not ended, otherwise the efforts of Rosa Parks and the rest would be unnecessary. Black people were still slaves, only free to go home to their segregated neighborhoods at the end of the long workday with hardly any money to show for it.

Irish Brigade, Confederate Army

We were tired of waiting and Mr. Kennedy and the First Lady gave us reason to hope for change.

The First Lady's input was important in the White House, we thought. She was a young mother, who could surely sympathize with children being abused on television by the policemen. Her input in the White House against these actions had to be important. My mother's input was important in our household decisions. The First Lady would influence Mr. Kennedy's decisions to favor us, we so naively thought, unaware of the woman's real life and personal disappointments.

We were confident in President Kennedy because he came from an Irish-Catholic family that did not have special privileges when they arrived in Boston in the mid-1800s. My mother read that Kennedy's father, Joseph, had been a bootlegger before he got rich and became respectable. One of my grandmother's brothers-in-law had been a bootlegger, too. To us kids the Irish were no different from us. There was so much that we kids did not know about the social conditions in the United States, including the fact that some Irish fought in the Confederate Army.

"No Irish" Sign
Boston Sign Company 1915

Although the Irish were persecuted well into the twentieth century, Kennedy became our first Irish-Catholic president. None of us kids knew about back-room deals or political maneuvering that made this happen, but we heard grownups talking about how his religion hindered him, even if he was rich.

"Money can't change some things," my mother always said.

Lights went down in the quiet auditorium and teachers standing in aisles shushed us. This was their president, too. The television was sitting on the stage at the front. Its black-and-white screen was so small, most of us behind the second row couldn't see the actual pictures, but the feeling was as if we were there peering through a tiny window to the action in Dallas. The room was electrified,  not with noise or motion, but with a still and silent exuberance that each of us felt. What a beautiful afternoon for a parade, I thought--sun shining, cool, no clouds, not a hint of rain or anything else to spoil the mood. 

Jacqueline Kennedy
It was particularly important that the First Lady didn't get rain to ruin her hairstyle and clothes. She wore dresses and suits that every want-to-be-classy woman and girl in America, including my mother and me, tried to imitate. "Simple is always best when it comes to clothes," my mother advised. "Good fit, strong seams and no fuss." To black women, the First Lady's most important features were her sable hair and brown eyes that sparkled without being blue. And Jacqueline Kennedy was gorgeous with her thick, dark brown hair with natural color that did not look like it came from a bottle.

Oh, we knew Mrs. Kennedy was a rich white woman living in the White House and we knew our lives could never be like hers. Somehow African American women contented themselves with identifying with Mrs. Kennedy's articulation, charm, carriage, attire, intellect and uncomplicated presentation. We could achieve Jackie's look with ease, we thought, an amazing look without the appearance of trying too hard like so many actresses we saw in Hollywood films. Today, all American women are fortunate to have a role model in Michelle Obama, similar to the example set by Jacqueline Kennedy half a century ago.

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy gave us a form of glamour with substance that we, as black women, could copy and pass on to our daughters, like my mother tried to pass on to me and I tried to pass on to mine. No matter what Jackie Kennedy wore, however simple, the clothing looked like it belonged on her, which made her seem at ease and real--a wife, a mother, a homemaker and former career woman--a photojournalist before she married then Senator John F. Kennedy in 1953.

In November 1963, however, the First Lady still wasn't feeling well, my mother told me the night before the Dallas visit...something about losing her baby back in August of the same year. His name was Patrick, just two days old when he died. My mother had read about the baby's death. She read a lot. She bought magazines, newspapers, reference books and other reading materials that kept her current on everything from news to fashion to science to art and all else that seemed to affect our lives or not. She was interested.

The loss of the First Lady's baby son saddened my mother, who knew the pain of losing a child. My little brother was seven when he died. His name was John. He had been very, very ill that morning, much more so than other times. My mother was crying when she told me to go on to school. She said she had to take him to the doctor and she didn't want me to worry. I didn't want to leave them but I did. I was nine and sitting in Mrs. Davis's fourth grade class when my cousin came to the school to get me. I knew when she came into the room my brother had died. It was written all over her face as she placed my sweater around my shoulders. I slipped my arms in and followed her out of the classroom. Neither of us said a word. It was a cool Fall day that, in itself, held no hint of death in the air.


My mother, Littie Nash, wrestled with Jim Crow racism during the 1950s and 1960s, while giving me the life of a little princess with imagination and without the luxury of having a lot of money...Littie did not waste compliments on me or anyone else. She reserved accolades to celebrate real accomplishments, not just because I dragged myself out of bed before noon on Saturday or because I made an 'A' on my report card. "Some things you have to do," she said. "And those things pass, not without notice, but without an all-day hullabaloo."

To support my efforts, my mother sponsored piano, ballet, tennis and swimming lessons, dance performances, recitals, literary and classical music club memberships, summer camps, school trips and science fair exhibits, still managing to squeeze out of our tight budget money for the dentist to install braces on my teeth. It took a great deal of courage to live with dignity and raise me to have aspirations. About my upbringing, Littie got it right, although I took detours of my own along the way. Read more at: Great Mothering in Jim Crow's World.

Bigmama Didn't Shop at Woolworth's
It was a nice day for the president and his wife to visit Texas. I thought of all the kids in all the other states watching this parade and being jealous that the president was here instead of there, where they were, like I was wishing I was in Dallas watching the actual parade instead of the little jerky motions on that tiny screen on the auditorium stage. This day would document an era in American history to change the direction of my future.

Suddenly, with this president, I had a future, for which I could prepare and look forward, a future described to me by my mother, who pushed me toward a light that was brighter for me than it had been for her. Who knew that day would end the way it did? Who knows how any day will end?

I document my family's legacy in much of my writing and in my book, Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's, about life with my mother and her mother, Bigmama, during the civil rights movement. My father was there, too, but he was busy working hard to help my mother pay for things she wanted for me. I realize now that my mother wanted the same things for me that First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy wanted for her children, a happy and prosperous life. 

Images of the president's parade were interrupted at 12:30 p.m. Central Standard Time. Walter Cronkite's came on trying to deliver the sad news and to calm the grieving nation, while he, himself, choked back tears. I was glad the screen was small and I couldn't see it well. I didn't want this news. Then someone pulled the plug on the television. The screen went black except for a tiny white glow in the middle that faded away slowly. Staring at the fading beam, no one dared to move. We didn't know what to do; just sat there staring at the little black hole on the stage that was once  a window to the future.

The late Walter Cronkite outlines his feelings of that day and many other memories from his career in a Collector's Edition DVD, Walter Cronkite Remembers.

After school, I walked home in silence, confused. All of my classmates were silent, too, also confused, some angry, cursing invisible strangers and swinging fists at the air. What would we do without our President? Could that have been the way the freed slaves felt when President Lincoln was assassinated? Now what? More of the same? How long? Why? Was this all that would be left of the protests of the past? A sputtering out of all our efforts? What about Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King? What were they thinking now? How would we recover?

Was it selfish of me to take so personally the loss of this man I did not know? What must his family be feeling now? It had not occurred to me, at first, that a family was now without a husband, father, son, brother, uncle, cousin, nephew, friend...more alone than we were. How alone must the First Lady and their children be feeling? All I remembered for days to come was her bloodied pink suit that he had worn the entire day. What sorrow she bore.

I could imagine how that family felt because I had experienced the loss of my brother. My mother could imagine because she had experienced the loss of her son. After my little brother died, our house turned into a lonely shell for quite some time. We watched my mother going through the motions of living until she was able to live again with her great pain. She never talked about her grief with me, perhaps with Bigmama or my father, but not with me. I never talked about my grief with her, afraid I would hurt her more by bringing up my brother's name. We just went about life the best we could without him and wondered what life would have been like had he been there with us.

I feel the loss of my brother to this day, as I am sure my mother did until the day she died. Unlike the first family, the world was not here to share our losses with us. But what real good can the world's caring make? Somewhere deep in the privacy of the heart, hurt just hurts, whether the world is there to share it or not. In pain, there is little company that matters; maybe a smile or a nod acknowledging its presence. I don't know. Pain is like birth and death. You do them alone. No one can know how another person really feels. They can only imagine.

Jacqueline Kennedy : Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy Book with AUDIO Interview 8CDs Boxed set [Hardcover] [Audio CD] (Jacqueline Kennedy)
As much pain as she was feeling, four months after the assassination of her husband, former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy sat with Arthur Schlesinger and recorded Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy. The document of her husband's legacy produced 8.5 hours of interviews on eight CDs with a 400-page, illustrated hardcover transcript.

The late former First Lady talked in great detail about her personal life with the president and revealed secrets of their lives and relationship. At the time of the interviews and recording, Jacqueline Kennedy had decided that her words should not be released before 2011. Mrs. Kennedy's daughter and author, Caroline Kennedy, wrote the Foreword to her mother's collection; the introduction was written by historian, Michael Beschloss. The former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy's previously archived, taped interviews and photographs are now available to the public. Order below:

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