There are moments in life, some personal, and some shared, that are indelibly embedded into memory. I was in an airplane over Namibia heading to New York when my son was born. I was in a restaurant in Washington when my father died. I was in Ghana when the first man walked on the moon. And I was on crutches in the hallway of my high school when I first heard that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
This historical moment, which occurred fifty years ago today, is viewed very differently depending on the demographic that you occupy. Anyone born before 1940 had lived through the Great Depression and a World War – they had personally witnessed and experienced death, destruction and the explosion of dreams. While they would certainly have been moved to tears and carried very heavy hearts on that never to be forgotten Friday, the death of John Kennedy was one more painful episode in a life that had seen people lose their homes, their jobs and their lives.
Anyone born before 1940 had seen entire nations razed to the ground. Concentration camps in Europe, America and the Pacific were not distant memories. Anyone born before 1930 had seen much of the world turned into a charnel house, this planet had become the abattoir of the Devil. And the death of John Kennedy was one more familiar burden.
Anyone born after 1955 has only the faint memory of a child or a reference in a history book when it comes to the death of John Kennedy. Their memory is forever refracted through the prism of other people’s memories. And this particular death goes into the catalogue with other historical assassinations from Caesar to Lincoln. Historically important, deeply significant, but lacking in emotional burden – after all, no one weeps while reading a history book.
For those people born between 1940 and 1955 however, the killing of John Kennedy was a moment of profound significance – significance that went far beyond the horrific event of the president of the United States having his head blown off in full view of the world. For those of us in this particular demographic, the assassination was a wakeup alarm for a generation that was comforted with manufactured Technicolor dream scenarios.
In this scenario, all good things were possible, and bad things either happened to someone else in some other country, or just to someone else. In this scenario, the promise of the future was eternally bright and we were taught that this bright future was ours as a matter of birthright. In this scenario monstrosities and atrocities and cynicism belonged to the past.
The election of John F. Kennedy, the youngest person ever elected president, meant that youth was claiming its American – and global – inheritance. That youth was us and the idea of a New Frontier and a Peace Corps and “…asking not what this country can do for you but what you can do for your country” was intoxicating stuff.
It was cool to be optimistic. It was cool to care about others and the world. It was cool to be brilliant and educated and embracing of culture and sophistication. And it was so very clear that this would last forever, that this is the way it would be.
And then it wasn’t.
Black and white televisions broadcast the unbelievable news and radios crackled with reports that surely came from Hell. There was no way that dreams could just die. There was no way that a symbol of hope and promise could just be killed.
And there was no way that we could know that while the earth had barely settled on the graves of the young girls assassinated in Birmingham, Alabama that Malcolm X had less than two years left to live.
We had no way of knowing that both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy would be dead in less than five years. We didn’t know that John Coltrane, John Lennon and Fred Hampton and Jimi Hendrix and George Jackson would also be dead before too long.
And we had no way of knowing that our brothers and sisters would be dying on battlefields in Watts and Newark and Vietnam and Waco and Ruby Ridge and Jonestown and Iraq and the World Trade Center.
But we began to learn how fragile dreams are and how precious hope is. We began to appreciate the uncertainty of tomorrow and unfortunately, we all began to drink from the cup of cynicism, too many of us too deeply.
And now, on the fiftieth anniversary of the death of innocence for an entire generation, it is now time for that generation to stop thinking about what might have been and spend the rest of the time with which we may be blessed working on what can be.