TWO DATES : November 22, 1963 & April 4, 1968
John F. Kennedy Assassinated:
Date: Friday, Nov 22, 1963
Where: Dealey Plaza, Dallas, at 12:30 p,m.
Why? Political or Criminal Motives???
In 1963, I was in high school, in typing class under Mrs. Stambaugh. It was one of those “easy” classes, an easy “A,” and as I would soon be in college, it didn’t take long for me to appreciate how valuable good typing skills were. November 22nd, we were typing away, when someone walked into the classroom and whispered something in our teacher’s ear.
She asked everyone to stop typing, she had an announcement. “President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas!” she said.
I remember that moment as I laughed out loud and said: “Good!” and a few other students laughed. But my teacher didn’t laugh, and the rest of the class didn’t laugh. Slowly the seriousness of the event sunk in. Slowly, I began to feel ashamed of having laughed out loud.
The small private school I attended was a school which taught an almost “cloistered” attitude. They believed theirs was the only religion, they believed that liberals, Catholics and Democrats such as John Kennedy were bad.
I had not had time to live life and see a broader perspective. It took years for me to educate myself on social and cultural trends, and why some groups tend to believe "they are the people" or "they are the center of the Earth."
My parents, my friends, my teachers, all were raised in an old traditional “redneck” culture of very right-wing social, political, religious attitudes. The school had honored me by making me “Mr. Ft. Worth Christian,” and I was a popular person at our school. In my world there was an “us” and a “them.” “We were the chosen few,” and the ‘’them” (everyone else) were doomed to Hell. It was a small-minded teaching, both in religion and in the philosophy of humanity. The circle they drew was small and exclusive, everyone outside of the circle was simply a doomed sinner. My attitude was understandable, I had not been taught or exposed to anything else. I had not studied, nor sought education about other beliefs and cultures. But, even 60 years later, I feel tangible shame at my spontaneous reaction on that event on Friday, November 22, 1963.
After Kennedy was shot, for the next four or five days I was glued to the TV. Indeed the nation was paralyzed. Everyone was watching their TV screens. Many people stayed home; some schools were closed; some people just didn’t go to work. The enormity of what had happened sunk in, and I began to understand the implications. Implications for the president’s widow, implications for the vice president, LBJ. Implications for our land, because it seemed to me that our nation would never be the same. I had been brought up to believe that ours was a Christian nation, and that we did not murder our leaders like other countries. America would never be the same, and indeed, the Kennedy assassination was followed by other killings that were all proof to me that our nation had truly been changed.
The shooting of Kennedy by Oswald, and then his murder by Jack Ruby two days later, made it complicated and worse.
The words of Walter Cronkite, “We now have information from our correspondent (Dan Rather) that President John F. Kennedy is dead” seemed to crack the universe.
Certainly it cracked my perception of the stability and safety of our nation.
Later Walter Cronkite said, “When I spoke those words, the enormity of this news for the nations, that John Kennedy, our President, a man that I had known, hit me, and the broader implications of it, and I nearly broke down emotionally on live TV.”
A few weeks later a high school friend, Mark Garrison, said, “Hey, let's go, I want to show you something.”
We jumped into my car, and he directed me to a graveyard in Handley, Texas. It was the cemetery that contained the grave of Lee Harvey Oswald. He reminded me that Oswald left a widow, a simple woman who still lived in the simple small house they lived in in that area near the graveyard. Oswald was always a mystery to me. Was he a troubled man, or someone who was brainwashed by Russians, or a poor man paid by someone else who wanted Kennedy killed because he was a threat? Organized crime? Political ambition? International politics? We may never know, but my friend, Mark Garrison, opened my mind to think further on this by showing me Oswald's grave. There were bigger implications at play, and this was a tiny piece of the puzzle. A voice silenced by Jack Ruby, who was another man with questionable friends, raising more questions.
A few years later I was at a college with the same religious background as my high school located in Searcy, Arkansas. Our college was a beautifully landscaped campus with neo-Roman architecture and some excellent professors. I had been voted president of the freshman class and later organized and a group of about 70 students who gathered for meetings singing spiritual songs and doing good works on weekends, inviting people to come to “our” church. Events while I was at Harding College caused me to change my primary major from theology and the Bible, to communications and speech. Later on when I left Harding, I went to New York and began a study of economics, graduating from advanced studies in finance.
But the underlying financial support for Harding College in those days came from that far-right-wing religious group and its main money-raiser, Dr. George Benson, (who had earlier been the president of Harding for many years). Benson had strong connections with wealthy men of the far right politically who gave big bucks to any organization that would promote right-wing politics. Thus some of the college courses tended to be right wing in orientation, whether the subject was religion, history or economics. Mixing religion and politics was the genius that kept the money coming in to pay the bills for Harding College (later to be called Harding University) in those days.
So it was April 4, 1968, I was a Bible major then, and had been president of the senior class, when the news rushed across the campus. “Martin Luther King shot in Memphis.” Some of us thought that might be a good thing, because we had been taught that he was just another trouble maker. “Always stirring up the black people” was a phrase often repeated on campus. On our college campus, there were few black students. I only knew of a few personally, one who got in on a football scholarship and another black couple who were friendly but stayed to themselves. We were essentially an all-white campus in 1968. But in the 60's of America, there were many private colleges that had few if any black students. Only a few progressives in the educational system worked to integrate our system. As a student, I often wondered how we could send missionaries to African nations to give them the gospel, but on the other had were sometimes hesitant for those same black students to attend our private colleges. That was simply the way it was 50 or 60 years ago.
But when Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot, there was a shudder of fear that crossed the campus. Activities were cancelled. There were rumors of potential violence. I wondered, "Why would they be fearful of violence at this beautiful little private college in Arkansas?" Later that night, I noticed that armed men with rifles had been stationed on the rooftops of some of the dorms and campus buildings. That seemed like the most spooky thing, because as I walked across the campus with a girl, she said she was scared and asked me to take her to her dorm. Most of us stayed indoors that night. We all heard the details of the shooting, that had taken place earlier that evening. Martin Luther King was shot on the balcony of the Lorrain Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, by a sniper with a 30-06 rifle just after 8 pm. The news reports said that violence, starting in Memphis and spreading everywhere, was ongoing.
Violent demonstrations erupted in more than 100 American cities, 27,000 were arrested. One historian made a public statement that, “During that week in 1968, the USA experienced its greatest wave of political violence since the Civil War.” Ironic because Martin Luther King’s central message was for peaceful progress, peaceful demonstrations. When I was in college at Harding, it amazed me that they felt the need to put those armed guards with rifles on rooftops. Why did the leaders of our little college seem concerned enough to put gunmen on the campus to “protect" us? Perhaps it was because the college had a reputation for alignment with right-wing groups. One day, some of us were working in the attic of one of the older main buildings, and there we found boxes filled with old paraphernalia of the Klu Klux Klan. I learned that in days, decades past there were people who supported that organization connected with the college. Some held meetings there on campus. Perhaps that was what the administration of the college knew and were afraid that it might be known by black activists. Well, fortunately, things have changed since then, but the college did have a reputation for being well to the right politically and religiously. I once asked one of the black students to join our group of 70 kids, and he was a smart, well-dressed young man, always polite, but he without hesitation said to me, "I see now that MLK was shot, you feel the need to have a token black member to show to all that you are not a bigot. Frankly, I have no interest in joining your group." I thought about his words, and he was right. He was well ahead of me in having analyzed race relations.
Like my ignorance of JFK, I was ignorant about Martin Luther King. I had no idea of what the black culture was like or what black people were thinking, nor did I fully understand how to be a voice for something positive and helpful. I was ignorant about right- and left-wing politics. Only as I listened to the radio did I begin to learn of Martin Luther King's life, his work and his message. Slowly, I began to appreciate the work that he was trying to do, the progress that he was trying to bring. The conflicts that he had had with more violent sects of the black community were eye opening to me. I learned that he and President Johnson had met and discussed ways to bring the nation forward. He was a man of peace, while others believed in “black power” and violence. King was a voice for peaceful progress.
As a humorous aside, one summer I took a group of college kids to Europe, and there we were knocking on doors and passing out invitations for people to come to church. My dad, who was raised in a small town in West Texas and a "hero" for his valor as a Marine in WWII, had no interest or understanding of race relations or issues. He was too busy trying to make a good living. I knew how he would react in his "conservative" mind set when I sent him a letter addressed to: Melvin E. Boothe, President of the NAACP from Germany. Dad was a community leader, a member of the school board and an important man in his little town. A few days later I got a surprise long distance call from my father. "Ben, what did you do that for?" I started to laugh, but he interrupted me. "The FBI sent men to my business to investigate what I was doing with the NAACP. They were seriously concerned." I had no idea that the FBI would monitor our mail, and then go so far as to call on my father. At that time he was an important man in that little town, was a church goer, and was the heart of the little business community in White Settlement, Texas. He finally said, "Son, don't play jokes like that, you don't realize how much concern some people in our country have about racial tensions." The humor of it took a few years before he could smile about that incident. At the time I promised not to do that again, and then realized that our "land of the free" was also a land where there were people watching and listening.
But over the years, while my dad never thought it was as funny as I did at the time, I had a few laughs about my dad. The very idea that anyone would consider him the head of a political or liberal or controversial organization was funny to me. He was a hero, a man who got a Presidential Citation for his heroism in Iwo Jima during WWII. He was the most patriotic man that I knew. But the event did enlighten me as to how closely our government was watching race relations.
I had a date with a girlfriend in Memphis a day or two after MLK was killed by that sniper. I had been listening to the reports of demonstrations, fires and violence on the radio. Someone told me that I should stay away from Memphis, because it had a high black population and violent demonstrations were going on. “They might not like a white man in a Ford Mustang with Texas tags driving around.” But, I really wanted to see that girl (she later became my wife) and deep inside I wanted to see what was going on in Memphis. I wanted to learn, to touch it, feel it, try to understand the emotions of racial relations and conflict.
Being young and not very wise, I recall having some apprehension about going to Memphis, but a part of me was curious to learn, to see "the action." I was afraid, yet curious, to see if the TV and radio reports were real or just hype. I knew that there were a lot of angry and hurt people in Memphis. Mixing hurt, anger and fear could lead to violence. How silly my young thinking was, filled with curiosity to see an unstable area. I too was young and afraid. When I drove into Memphis, I felt the spirit of Memphis in the air. The anger and fear was almost tangible. People were on edge, everyone was looking and frowning at every face, every car, especially every black face, seemed to be looking at my white face. It felt like everyone in Memphis was carrying a gun or a baseball bat or something harmful, and it seemed that a lot wanted to use whatever they had on someone. I determined that I didn't want that "victim" to be me.
I felt like the place could erupt at any moment. I began to learn another lesson from history. The quote, “violence begets violence” and "fearful anger begets violence" began to echo in my mind. Fear can turn into irrational violence. I figured there were a lot of angry and fearful people in Memphis, and it was time for me to get off of the streets, so I drove to my girlfriend’s house, and she, her mother and I spent the day watching a movie on TV. Even the movie was interrupted by news flashes of violence. We were happy to be behind closed curtains and locked doors. Something to keep the "evil" out, keep the fear and violence out, it seemed.
Those days of fear and violence in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968 were something. It spread throughout the USA. Going there made me think how powerful fear and anger can be and how the combination can create more violence that builds into a hurricane of violence. The lesson was burned into my memory.
I had remembered thoughts that I had when JFK was killed years earlier.
The haunting prophecy that I had imagined when JFK was murdered came back to mind. Our nation was not the same "safe" place. Perhaps that safe place had just been a figment of my hopes and imagination, but for sure the safe and “certainty of a good, comfortable place” that I had imagined seemed to be wounded. I knew that our nation had spawned pockets or radical hate, and that hate was popping up around the nation. That seemed to be a cause for alarm.
These two dates changed my life. Later, the shooting of Bobby Kennedy and others made it seem to me that a new and more violent nation was coming. The multiple shootings, killings and violence that we now see in our political and cultural world is simply an extension of those two dates. Most Americans still don't know that just a few years after MLK was shot, his mother was shot by a radical in church who said he "hated Christians." The list of violence in recent years has become so long, I dare not try to document it here.
There it is, a memory of a phrase from my Sunday School teacher: "Violence begets violence." My elementary school asked us to quote a Bible verse for all the parents one day, and I was given: "Blessed be the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God." It was a timely verse, to be more needed every year since then.
When in 2016 I heard politicians running for office and goading their audiences to violently "take care" of people who disagreed with them, or to have people "roughed up" when arrested, I feared that this would encourage, enable and stimulate more violence. When I heard a presidential candidate make speeches and say "I would like to punch that man!" I was amazed. My theory about the trend of outrageous violence, the condoning of it, by a future president, no less, made me think back about Mussolini and Hitler.
There was a political event in Albuquerque, NM, during the presidential race of 2016. Outside the convention center where Trump was speaking, there were the Mexican Mafia (armed and dangerous), local gang groups (equally dangerous), motorcycle groups (slightly less dangerous but still armed), and also people from the opposing political party. The police later said, "There were more guns and knives out there than there were police. Some were better armed than we were." It was a dangerous mix of people, and a few people were hurt when the various groups and police merged into a yelling and pushing match at the crowd control barricades.
Violent attitudes have increased so that in America now we have neonazis demonstrating for "freedom of speech" and white supremists cursing blacks, Hispanics, and immigrants while they threaten to beat up anyone who disagrees with them. And then there are normal middle class Americans demonstrating for love and peace who seemed to be eager to attack the Nazi thugs. No doubt main-stream Americans want to make the point that Nazi's aren't welcome in the USA. The conflicts have led to anger and fear and often violence when insults are hurled back and forth.
More lessons learned:
- Those two dates teach us how important it is for us to be better informed and not to let traditional cultural, religious or political prejudices control us. Ideologies can become dangerous and lead to violence.
- Violent attitudes and thoughts tend to beget other violence.
- A result of hatred, hate speech and lack of information can lead to fear and ignorant actions.
- Fear and violence lead to anger and more violence.
- Only love, respect and enlightened compassion can replace fear and violence.
Our nation, indeed our world, is a place filled with violence and unhappy people. There are nations on earth that years ago I visited without concern. Today, I am much more careful. There are Islamic radicals, ISIS, a whole list of terrorist groups, Israelis, Kurds, Turks, the Taliban, paid soldier mercenaries and cultural conflicts so complex that it is often hard to figure who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Some are willing to spread murder and violence in our world. On the other hand, even with the violence we see in America, our country is far safer and far more peaceful than many nations. This should teach us and motivate us to work to make our nation a more peaceful, enlightened and compassionate nation. We need to work on how to eliminate hate, fear and anger from our streets.
It is incumbent on people of wisdom and insight to take these lessons and start neutralizing the negative "waves" with compassion, love, strength and integrity.
You know, two tidal waves in the ocean that intersect can neutralize one another. Conversely, two hurricanes can combine and become terribly powerful and dangerous. We need a few more active people of insight and good character to consider being good forces for culture. We need good and wise leaders to join forces and intellect to make decisions that bring peaceful harmony. We need leaders to neutralize ignorance, anger, violence and fear. A reversal of the trends that seemed to have been be ignited by those two dates in history calls for wise leaders to create voices of enlightenment. Otherwise, this epidemic of “unhappy and violent people” throughout the world will grow and throw civilization into chaos.