Monday, November 28, 2016

Looking back

It happened one day 20-some years ago in a supermarket now closed. I was talking to a high-school-aged cashier about how little use she would ever have for algebra for the rest of her life unless she became an algebra teacher, and she said that even more than math, she hated history.

"You know, boring old presidents, like Kennedy."

And I was transported back to that day in 1963, seventh grade at the now-demolished Towsontown Junior High School.  It was report card day, and we were being sent back to homeroom to get the cards, and before that could happen, the principal, Maynard B. Henry, came on the public address system and told us that the president had been shot in Dallas, and then he put the radio on so that we could hear the news unfolding.

John F. Kennedy, 1917 - 1963
We couldn't know in the instant moment that the events of that day/weekend would come to be known as the end of the 1950's, the end of our innocence, the end of Camelot.  We only knew that we didn't know much about Lyndon Baines Johnson, who suddenly was our president.  Over the next three days, we saw the slain president come back to Washington in a casket, his personal effects removed from the White House, and the arrest and assassination of his killer. On Monday, we saw a funeral live on TV, and we prepared to enter an unknown future.

Johnson, master politician, leveraged the mourning into passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which knocked down legal barriers at the state and local levels preventing African Americans from exercising their right to vote under the 15th Amendment (1870) to the Constitution.  There is doubt among historians as to whether Kennedy could have gotten passage of these parts of his New Frontier program for the nation, but Johnson did it, and won re-election to his own term in '64, only to bow out of the race in 1968 - one of the most tumultuous years in our history. The Viet Nam War proved to be Johnson's undoing, but his early days in office gave us progress long overdue and still worthy of respect.

All this, we could never have predicted that gray Friday, 11/22/63, but looking back on it, one could never call those days "boring," unless one was not paying attention in History class.  I told the cashier that I was certain her teacher knew some ways to bring the 1960s alive for the Class of '96.  And I hope she asked.

If you are looking for some words to help bring those days in perspective, I can think of few better examples than those of columnist Jimmy Breslin. He knew that every other reporter 
would interview Johnson, DeGaulle, the other Kennedys, and other people of note. Breslin interviewed the man who dug Kennedy's grave, and wrote about it as only he can.  I urge all interested in looking back with me today to read his piece here.

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