Between 1963 and 1968, Americans experienced three murders of national political figures: President John F. Kennedy (1963), civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968), and Robert Kennedy (1968), former U.S. Attorney General and brother of JFK. I remember vividly the day, the place I was, and my feelings each time.
Friday, November 22, 1963 was the day President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. On that anniversary, I recalled much detail of where I was, what I was doing, and the shock of the event. I also forgot a lot. This is what I recall.
Barbara, Sondra–then 18 months old–and I moved from Cleveland (OH) to Washington, D.C. three months earlier to take on a new job as a history specialist in a federally funded pilot (the money came from a fund established by Attorney General Kennedy to combat juvenile delinquency) called the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching. Located in a District of Columbia high school that media called a “slum” school, the principal of the all-Black school (both students and faculty) was director of the project. She hired me and two other staff members to work with returned Peace Corps Volunteers who wanted to earn a masters degree and become licensed teachers. There were 10 PCVs.
It was an exciting time. Kennedy’s words in his inaugural speech–“Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” resonated with most Americans, including me. Within months of becoming President in 1961, he established the Peace Corps with the first cadre of volunteers going to the Philippines later that year. In 1963, that Philippine group was returning to the U.S. and many who had taught English to Filipino children and adults wanted to become licensed teachers. Establishing the CPUT was one of many responses to these returning PCVs.
The ten former PCVs taught two classes a day, as I did. I had been a history teacher for seven years in an all-Black school in Cleveland (OH) so I supervised four history “interns,” as the returned PCVs were called. We saw each other teach, created lessons together, and rejoiced when they worked and got frustrated and angry when they flopped. The five of us became close in those early months. Barbara and I hosted gatherings at our home on weekends further cementing the close ties in the group.
Then Kennedy was murdered. Word came to the entire faculty during a late-afternoon meeting in the library. Someone burst through the doors agitated and speaking loudly that the President had been shot and was at Parkland hospital. The meeting broke up and within a few minutes word came that Kennedy had died.
Shock hits people in different ways. Some of the teachers and nearby students burst into tears. Some were dazed and sat down to gather their wits. And some hurriedly picked up their books and papers and left school. I was one of the dazed ones. I wanted to talk to Barbara but the few phones in the main office were tied up (there were no cell phones at the time).
The interns and I went back to 101, our room on the first floor where we all had desks and quietly talked or sat by ourselves in stunned silence. No one knew what to do because there was nothing that any of us could do but mourn the death of a President who had meant a great deal to each of us in different ways. Slowly, some interns said goodbye and left. Others stayed. Duncan Yaggy, one of my history interns, asked me if we could go over to a nearby bar and have a beer together. I agreed and we left Cardozo.
Without smart phones, twitter, Instagram, the news of the President’s death had spread swiftly in the neighborhood. As we walked on Clifton St. passed a large apartment building we heard crying, shouts back and forth, and small groups of people talking. On 14th St., we went to a tavern and had beers and continued to talk about what had happened. Duncan was, like myself, a history major and we talked about the Lincoln assassination a century earlier.
I do not remember much else about who was in the bar, other conversations we had with patrons there, or other details. The only other memory I have of that Friday 58 years ago was that when I returned home, Barbara suggested that everyone in the project get together–as in the Jewish tradition–to mourn. I called a few of the interns who got in touch with others and the whole group including staff came to our home the following evening.
The funeral for the slain President was a few days later. Barbara, Sondra, and I joined the crowds along Pennsylvania Ave. to watch the cortege pass by.
That is what I remember of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963.