Monday, October 14, 2013

The Kennedys and a Different World

It's the time of year when everybody's talking about it again. New books are released, new movies come out, television shows footage and pictures, and everybody wants to know: Did we ever learn the true story of John Fitzgerald Kennedy's assassination? If not, will we?

CBS This Morning, interviewing the writer of a new book about the assassination, showed the statistic revealing that 85% of the American people view Kennedy as one of the greatest American presidents. In view of the unpopularity of Barack Obama in some circles and my admiration for this president, a man I see as an example of grace under tremendous pressure, I find this statistic heartening. I want to tell you what it was like where I was when JFK was killed.

I was living in Atlanta and had a baby just over a year old. We were living in a garage apartment behind a big house on Springdale Road, with our futures bright and our hopes high for having such a young, vital and attractive couple in the White House. My husband and I were that rare thing, Southern Liberals, and we endured the injustice of the Jim Crow mentality at every turn--and had all our young lives--but were not engaged politically in such a way as to try to do anything about it.

Atlanta was very segregated then, and the only hope was that there was a crusading newspaper under the leadership of the brilliant Ralph McGill and a bright businessman named Ivan Allen was mayor. Lurking in the background, and joke to the smart people in town, was a little troll named Lester Maddox, who ran a fried chicken restaurant and ran ads in the newspaper that were little more than racist rants. Maddox handed out free ax handles in the parking lot of his restaurant for his loyal customers to use to club any Negroes (and that wasn't the way he pronounced it) who might try to get into his restaurant.

My father-in-law was a doctor in Dothan, Alabama, and he passionately opposed the encroaching "socialized medicine" initiative that would be called the Medicare program--as did all loyal members of the American Medical Association. My husband got in constant discussions with his sister, who attended Auburn University at that time, on the subjects of Civil Rights protests (she didn't approve) and the Kennedy family (she disliked and feared them intensely). There was no reaching these people about JFK and Jackie, much less about what they saw as the dynasty he was building.

The atmosphere in the South was similar to what it is now: Hatred and fear of the president and his programs. We have suffered so much upheaval and agony since the Kennedy years that those halcyon days seem almost pleasant now, but they weren't. The stress I endure every day now was fresh then, anticipating as it did events and personalities that would be much worse than we could have imagined. There are many things Kennedy did wrong in his short tenure as POTUS, but he was not allowed to become what he might have had he been allowed a longer life. The very things for which he was despised in his time he is now admired for. I take a little solace in that, because I've seen it happen before. A man doing his absolute best every minute he is at the helm, vilified and misrepresented, fifty years later being considered a hero to 85% of the people he governs.

Hope and change? Barack Obama has not been able to effect the change he promised. But he instilled enough hope in me that I can say in 50 years or possibly sooner, the world will know and respect his inordinate ability to do what he can under the most adverse of circumstances. At least, just perhaps 85% will.



  1. I hope it is sooner than 50 years, Mary. I am definitely one of the 85%.... It was a great feeling when Kennedy won the election. I remember the debates on black and white tv. The Kennedys were popular in my family and such an attractive family.

  2. Nice to have someone agree with me! I see the Kennedys through a very different lens these days--and I hope the world will someday see the Obamas differently too. The way television worked was different then too.

  3. Brilliant and touching, it will be his legacy. I thought we had come so much farther since then, till only recently. I was in middle school at the time, I remember the announcement vividly. I remember seeing all the parents cars arrive and seeing them in tears waiting for their children. We know how much Obama has done even with the constant pushing back on him. He will be known as one of the greatest. Make that 86%