First published on the History Detectives blog, LeVar Burton writes his memories of JFK from a child’s perspective; highlighting how adult reactions can shape a child’s memories…and the tragedy of unfulfilled potential.
I was 6 years old and in the 1st Grade at Holy Angels Elementary School in Sacramento, California, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22nd, 1963. Being a Catholic school, there was of course, a considerable amount of pride associated with the fact that JFK was the first American president of Irish Catholic descent! It is hard to believe now but in those days, Kennedy’s faith was a pretty big deal for Americans. It was almost as large an issue as Barack Obama’s racial heritage was in the presidential campaign of 2008. In those days, all of the nuns and priests in the local parochial system hailed from Ireland and there was a natural sense of shared achievement in that a son of County Limerick, had risen to the highest office in the land.
Just before lunch, an announcement was made that the young President had been shot and an impromptu prayer vigil for his safe recovery was conducted over the PA system. The next thing I knew, we were informed that the unthinkable had happened; the President was dead! Classes were cancelled for the remainder of the day and we were all sent home. I remember being surprised that day by the presence of my mom, who was normally at work. She called me to her side, gathered me in her arms and for the next several days we sat together as a family, watching the black & white TV as events unfolded in gradations of grey.
I believe the fact that children are so totally dependent on the adults in their lives makes them highly attuned to the moods and emotions of the grown-ups around them. From the obviously shaken priests and nuns at school, to the teary-eyed network anchors, to my own Gibraltar solid rock of a mother, the adults in my life—those who normally provided all of the safety and stability a child thrives on—were gripped by a sudden, uncontrollable and overwhelming sense of grief and loss!
As the days progressed we sat glued to the TV, hugging one another and weeping, and were witness to events both profane and profound: The unbelievable assassination of the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, by Jack Ruby, on live TV; the indelible images of the funeral cortège, a stoic Jackie Kennedy, elegant even in her grief, John-John’s salute of his father’s passing casket. The nation wrapped itself in a blanket of sorrow and mourned our common loss. I had no way of knowing then that my childhood was to become one where the assassinations of significant political leaders and social pioneers would become so frequent as to almost seem commonplace.
As we commemorate this 50th anniversary of that tragic day in Dallas, and move further in time from those dark days, let us remember not only the events themselves, but let those events be a constant reminder to us all, of the genuinely tragic nature of potential unfulfilled. As was said recently by Kerry Kennedy, one of JFK’s own nieces, “What we should be looking at is not how these men died, but how they lived.”
Indeed… how they lived, and what might have been had they lived long enough to finish the work they began.
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