Fifty-six years ago this week, President Kennedy arrived in Dallas, Texas as part of a multi-day campaign stop. The president’s aides were uncomfortable. The Texas crowds were unfriendly and rowdy. “If anybody really wanted to shoot the president of the United States,” Kennedy told his aide Kenneth O’Donnell on the morning of November 22, “it was not a very difficult job—all one had to do was get a high building someday with a telescopic rifle, and there was nothing anybody could do to defend against such an attempt.”
That same morning, he made a joke to Jackie: “We’re heading into nut country today. . . . You know, last night would have been a hell of a night to assassinate a President.”
President Kennedy was shot at 12:30 p.m. (CST) on that day as his open limousine made its way through Dealey Plaza. He was pronounced dead 30 minutes later. His death marked the first assassination in 62 years, but unlike the McKinley murder, the entire country followed events in real-time
Everybody has a Kennedy story. He was both loved and reviled by so many people and was taken so fast and so publicly for it to not have left an indelible mark on anyone who lived through it. It was also a period of heightened tensions – Vietnam, civil rights, nuclear showdowns – that coincided with the rise of an outspoken counterculture movement of activists and dissidents alike.
Even in his nineties, President George H.W. Bush’s memory of the day was crystal clear. “I was running for the U.S. Senate,” he told me in an interview for my book, Accidental Presidents, “and Bar and I were in Tyler, Texas. We had a bunch of events that day and [the] next. We canceled them all and went home to Houston to be with our kids.”
For him, the impact became very real, noting that, “I am not sure President Kennedy would have gotten the Civil Rights legislation passed. LBJ is maybe the only person at that time who could have pulled that off. You had a Southern President calling his former Senate colleagues in the South, and in that wonderful Texas drawl of his, telling them to do the right thing. JFK’s Boston twang would not have had the same effect. LBJ knew how to push.”
For civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, Kennedy’s death was a critical inflection point in the civil rights movement. He remembers walking across campus at North Carolina A&T and hearing it on the radio. “I couldn’t believe it,” he remembered, “Presidents didn’t get killed. Lincoln had been killed, but that was so long ago. I felt like there were two assassinations, Kennedy and civil rights. I would eventually realize that I was wrong.”