JFK Assassination Reaction

Friday November 22, 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  As we reflect on that tragic day and honor the memory of the late president, students in the “Oral History” class this semester conducted a series of interviews with current and retired Samford employees and alumni.  Each  day this week, the Bull Pup will highlight these Samford voices.

JFK Collage 3

L to R: (Top Row) Elizabeth Wells, Special Collection Archivist; William Nunnelley, Senior Editor and Director of Public Relations at SamfordJames Brown, Professor of History; Brad Bishop, Professor of Law; William Collins, Professor of Political Science; (Middle Row) Marlene Rikard, Professor of History; Harold Hunt, Retired Samford Theatre Department Chair; Larry Davenport, Professor of Biology; (Bottom Row) Jennings Marshall, Professor of Economics; John Mayfield, Professor of History; Ellen McLaughlin, Professor of Biology; Governor Albert Brewer, Professor of Law and Government  

How did the news impact you? How did your world change (or did it)?

McLaughlin: It was an emotional time. I don’t think we thought the world was gonna end, and we were grateful for a country where you could have a peaceful transition.

Wells: The assassination was one thing but our world was topsy turvey in ways that we never had before.  In 1963, our whole life changed. It was never going to be the same. That one year: the president is assassinated, dogs and hoses in downtown. . . The reporters that [my dad] worked with were afraid. Seeing what happened, it was like, ‘I can’t believe this. This is really happening. It really happened.’ It was incredulous that this could happen to a president. I don’t know why we thought it couldn’t, but we had never had that before. Of course, there were assassinations that happened before, but I mean, good gravy! You never think about that.

Mayfield: Oh yeah. That was a pivotal moment, it was one of the worst days, the worst weeks of my life, it was just awful . . . I remember that very well.

Bishop:  I coached the debate team and . . . they were young liberal Democrats that liked Kennedy, much more so than the more conservative students on campus.  It was heartbreaking for them and I think it ultimately . . . changed some of their lives.  It was unexpected and there weren’t any real answers at the time and there still aren’t.  It is still a mystery.

Hunt:  We had television . . . and we just literally camped out for days it seemed like. The television was on 24 hours a day . . . but you just didn’t want to miss a minute of it, and you just got caught up in the history of it and the significance of it. And the pictures, I can still remember so much of those pictures on television . . . . It was sort of a lost weekend . . . .

Brown: I can not tell you I was politically conscious when I was 18, but JFK had brought a kind of air of youth and vigor . . . that eased us young folks into politics . . . . I changed my major a little over 7 months later from engineering to history and poli-sci because they weren’t talking about any of this stuff in engineering, they weren’t talking about what was going on in domestic affairs, they weren’t talking about what was going on in foreign affairs.  I suspect that was the single most important event that pushed me over the edge into humanities was Kennedy’s assassination.

Collins: Before the assassination, in my twenties, I was pretty much a believer that the United States was a great place in terms of what it had to offer to the rest of the world. But the experience of that assassination, the experience of Bob Kennedy being assassinated, and in particular Martin Luther King being assassinated, plus my experience with the Vietnam War suggested to me that America is not what it appears to be and that’s sort of been my opinion from that point on. I don’t go around announcing that, but it unhinged everything.  The initial reaction in my class was that this was the beginning of some kind of atomic attack. Then we went to the coffee shop and sat with friends and just didn’t say anything. It was kind of like Pearl Harbor, just a trauma.

Rikard: Your first political hero was gone, and . . . there’s Johnson who was a totally different personality thrown into a difficult situation. And at the same time you lived in Birmingham where all these other events were taking place as part of the civil rights movement. And I had seen a lot of the sit-ins and so forth because I was working downtown and I walked during my lunch hour. I didn’t see the demonstrations over at Kelly Ingram, but I saw some of the sit-ins and demonstrations downtown.  Even though I know now that JFK was drawn reluctantly into the civil rights issues, still he embodied a view that was different from what the gubernatorial administration in Alabama was displaying, and I was drawn to that. My political world changed not only because of the assassination of JFK, but also because everything was moving so fast on the civil rights movement. And it all became melded together. . . and Johnson drew upon the feelings of the country and wanted to do something in the memory of JFK.  What stands out vividly in my mind is the reaction of one of my coworkers. She was so crass! Because the administrators at the WMU[1] told us they were going to close the building down, go home. And this woman came up to me and said, “Well this is one way to get a holiday.”  I couldn’t believe that somebody could be that crass about the tragedy that had just occurred.  I don’t know why that has stuck with me. I guess just because it had been like somebody had stabbed you — that somebody would say something like that in the face of such a tragedy.

How did the news impact those around you (friends, family, etc)?

Davenport: My world didn’t change.  I did feel a tremendous loss, something unthinkable had happened, in broad daylight, to someone who had become a hero for that generation.  He was becoming a hero of mine.  Everything about him was positive.  Of course, we had that whole early 1960s happiness about us.  I think that whole generation was happy to be free of World War II and the Korean War. Of course, the Vietnam War was about to hit, but they were happy times and they were prosperous times, and our president was leading us through that.

Nunnelley: Well we were just sort of shocked . . . stunned.  You don’t think that that will happen.  Presidents had been shot, obviously . . . but it had been a long time since there had been any sort of violence like that related to the President. So it was just a very shocking moment.  I remember that day very well, even though it’s been almost fifty years.  I was a young coast guard recruit in boot camp at Cape May, New Jersey, which is not that far from Washington maybe a hundred and fifty miles or so.  They wanted to have representatives of all the branches of service to march in the funeral procession in Washington. . .We didn’t have much access to news, but the next morning we understood that they were going to take a group of us down to Washington.  And so the next morning they put us on buses and took us — this would be on Saturday, the next day, to the Baltimore Coast Guard station.  And we stayed there.  On Sunday they bused us over to Washington, and split us up into small groups.  So when we were on the bus going to that assignment, or maybe it was when we were going back up to Baltimore for the night, we heard somebody in the front of the bus say, “They’ve shot another one.”  Well that was when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald in the Dallas Police Station on Sunday afternoon.  And so Monday, we put on our dress blues and we all went and we lined up on the North side of the Capital for the funeral procession.

Brewer: There were so many heart-wrenching things that took place and there was such a pall of grieving just everywhere.  You not only had the unbelievable picture of the assassination of an attractive and popular young president, but you had the terrible grief on his young beautiful family, who in many ways were just an all-American family and then you had the uncertainty of who would do such a dastardly thing; is our country under siege?  How serious is this?  What does it mean?  What could we do?  And who would do such a thing?  You began wondering what steps will be taken in determining who was responsible.  It was a busy, hectic, bewildering time.  And it was strange that we had such strong impressions and recollections about it many, many years later.

Marshall: We had the special ceremony, and they actually covered it with the local T.V. station, our special parade with the flag.  My roommate, who was an outstanding trumpeter, played “Taps.” And everybody was very emotional. Everybody was shocked. It was just disbelief. It was kind of surreal. Everybody just sort of stood around.  It was just a disbelief, a shocking thing.  There was a lot of tension in those days, and there was speculation about Cuba and tension with Cuba and people wondered, will this end up causing a war with Cuba? Who did this? Why?

Dvonch: There were religious teachers and non-religious teachers in the Catholic school, the idea that this happened to him because he was a Catholic, that was the initial reaction — why else would they kill him?  There was that thought that somehow people killed Catholics.


[1] Women’s Missionary Union

Adapted from Oral History Interviews by Holly Howell, Sara Curley, Ben Woodall, Haley Rester, Smith Ann Burley, Katie Dover, Lauren Ziemer and Robert McNeill.

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