My fingers were covered in powdery smudges of bright-colored chalk as I clutched the stub of yellow, struggling to fill in the beak of a large turkey on the blackboard.
All my sixth-grade classwork was done. Thanksgiving 1963 was just six days away. Miss Anderson asked us to draw a seasonal picture on the blackboard. Pilgrims were clearly beyond my ability, but a turkey was in the realm of possibility.
At 1:40, the gray-haired teacher from next door entered our classroom. A few minutes later, Miss Anderson looked up, tears in her eyes, to tell us, “Class, President Kennedy has been shot.”
Being the child of a Holocaust survivor and a Dutch WWII veteran, I was not unaware of world events, even in our small upstate New York town in the days before the internet and cell phones. But the assassination of JFK accelerated the loss of my innocence. For the next 12 years, until the last helicopter lifted off from the U.S. Embassy roof in Saigon, I was assaulted with bad news along with every other American, constantly reminding me of the unsettled nature of the world and my helplessness.
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Every night my friends and I sat watching the news delivered by the grandfatherly Walter Cronkite on CBS, with stories on the escalating war in Vietnam, rioting in American cities, two more assassinations, antiwar protests, parades of nuclear missiles in Moscow, a corrupt presidential conspiracy, and the bloody response to the civil rights movement.
What I most remember are the pictures.
Heavily armed, helmeted soldiers in U.S. streets amid billowing smoke, broken glass and dead bodies. A 9-year-old Vietnamese girl, naked, running with her arms akimbo, fleeing oncoming soldiers, her flesh burning from napalm. Martin Luther King’s body on the balcony of a Memphis hotel. Another Kennedy, his face frozen in a flash in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen, seconds before he was shot. A poster headlined “Missing” with the faces of three college students who had been working in Mississippi. A portrait of a family friend in a military dress uniform, dead in Vietnam, A woman screaming over the body of a student shot by troops at Kent State University. A firebombed Greyhound bus in Alabama. Angry whites, police, and bulldogs snarling at peaceful protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama.
Adding to my inchoate anxiety and the early awakening of an impulse to take action, was the more personal existential threat of my approaching 18th birthday and the threat of being drafted into the Army. I was unsure of what my response would be, should I receive a low lottery number indicative of induction into the military. I did not believe in the war, but I also was not a conscientious objector. Even as the day came closer, I had no idea of what to do.
Those of you who are 60 and over are likely having bad flashbacks after reading these paragraphs. Those of you who are younger may believe that what we are living through now seems frighteningly similar to my description. To paraphrase Dorothy: ‘Hurricanes, terrorists, nuclear weapons, oh my!”
Despite the depressing news in my teenage years, we have made incredible progress since then. Protests, non-violent demonstrations, an independent press, and rule of law in a functioning democracy helped bring about change. We elected some good leaders and won important court cases. Since 1963 we have seen the end of Jim Crow laws, the Vietnam War, and a corrupt presidency. We saw the beginning of equal rights for women, nuclear arms treaties, and powerful environmental legislation in the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts.
It is easy to forget that 60 years ago women were stuck in the kitchen, African Americans were in the back of the bus, and gay men and women were in the closet. Remembering this progress gives me strength. As Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1956, echoing the Rev. Theodore Parker from the previous century: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Charlie van der Horst is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at UNC and a global health consultant. Follow him on Twitter @chasvanderhorst