Assassination opened a tumultuous decade

Nov. 23, 2013 @ 12:57 PM

Ray Reed’s sophomore English class, Mount Airy High School, second floor, desk near the front left by the windows.

As I write this, it has been just a few hours short of 50 years from that moment, when we learned that President John F. Kennedy had died from an assassin’s bullets in Dallas. Reed, an animated, popular teacher whose exasperated “dadgummits” we all wanted to avoid, bowed his head with moistening eyes and was silent for a moment.

It is a cliché to say nearly anyone who was alive and old enough to absorb the news that day remembers where he or she was.  Every generation has a moment – or two, or three – like that. 

For our parents, it was Pearl Harbor and V - J Day, bookends of our involvement in the carnage of World War II. Since Kennedy’s death, we’ve had space shuttle tragedies, particularly the Challenger’s on-lift-off explosion in 1986; and certainly Sept. 11, 2001.

As we’ve been immersed in recollections of and debate over Kennedy’s death and his legacy these past several weeks, I suspect many younger folks are thinking that once again the country as a whole must endure the baby boom generation’s self-absorption.

It’s worth noting that roughly 215 million people alive today had not been born when Kennedy was assassinated.  Another 43 million or so would have been 10 or younger in 1963, able to have only the sketchiest recollection of the event.

That leaves only roughly one out of every 5 of us with recollections of that day.

Having said that, I do think the case remains it was a seminal day in modern American history. The baby boomers were a massive demographic bulge that ushered in a tumultuous era.

It oversimplifies, but only slightly, to say November 22, 1963, marked the end of the 1950s and ushered in the ’60s.  Many have argued that the Kennedy assassination was something of an end of innocence for the boomers. 

It raised the curtain on a decade of social and cultural conflict that would change how Americans felt about their government and each other, changes that resonate to this day.

The next five years would see the violent deaths of Malcolm X in 1965, Martin Luther King in April 1968 and Robert Kennedy just two months later.

The decade would see long-overdue civil rights legislation that would end centuries of legal discrimination, the flowering of a women’s movement that would dramatically change opportunities for and erode discrimination against half the population, the serious beginnings of a gay rights movement and the beginning of the end of the South’s isolation and stagnation.

It would see the escalation of the war in Southeast Asia, a widely unpopular war which spawned an increasingly bitter protest movement and split the country as profoundly as it had been divided since the Civil War.

It saw the resignation of a corrupt vice president and the unfolding of a scandal that eventually would bring down a president. By the time of Richard Nixon’s resignation in August 1974 and the fall of Saigon eight months later, the country was emotionally exhausted.

A disproportionate share of the 4,177 days from Kennedy’s assassination to the fall of Saigon were memorable.

And if you’re tired of boomer reminiscences, the bad news is the next five years will bring the 50th anniversary of them all.