As we mark the 50th anniversary of President John Kennedy’s assassination, analysts are examining every conceivable angle of its impact. And rightly so—many see it as a turning point in history. The assassination itself was not the sole factor in the many societal changes that followed, but it certainly stands as a symbol.
I was recently explaining to a couple of 20-somethings the greater impact of that time, how it wasn’t only the Kennedy assassination that rattled the world, but a whole string of murders of leaders. The idea that crazies could remove anyone so easily by assassination was unnerving. It exposed how vulnerable we were, how tenuous leadership could be.
Earlier that year, on June 12, a Ku Klux Klan member ambushed Medgar Evers, a civil rights leader in Mississippi. This occurred only a few hours after President Kennedy had spoken on national television supporting civil rights.
Just 20 days before Kennedy was shot, communists assassinated the president of Vietnam and lit the match that would fire the terrible war that would soon ensnare the United States.
Fifteen months after Kennedy, on Feb. 25, 1965, members of the Nation of Islam killed Malcolm X.
In August of 1967 George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of the American Nazi Party, was assassinated. Even though he was a pariah of society, this was not the American way.
The next two, though, would really rock the nation.
Martin Luther King was shot on a Memphis hotel balcony on April 4, 1968; and as the nation was still grappling with that tragedy, Robert F. Kennedy, John Kennedy’s younger brother, was gunned down on June 6 as he campaigned for president.
Some call the ’60s the Era of Assassinations, but it actually continued into the early ’70s when Alabama governor George Wallace was left paralyzed by a failed attempt on his life.
One of the young adults said to me, “That was like the 9/11 of your generation.” In a way, yes, except that it was protracted and repeated time and again over a decade. The world was going mad!
Kennedy’s assassination, though, had the deepest impact. This handsome, charismatic war hero had swept into office, eloquently inspiring many citizens with speeches describing the promising future of the world. Many began to use “Camelot”—the idyllic notion of the legendary King Arthur and his realm—as a romantic symbol of the Kennedy presidency. He was leading the charge to reform racism; he stared down the Russians in the
Cuban missile crisis; he was going to put a man on the moon; he started the Peace Corps to send young volunteers out to help people in developing nations.
So it was not strange to cast his assassination, therefore, as the fall of Camelot. Even his widow, Jacqueline, once said, “There’ll be great presidents again, but there’ll never be another Camelot again.”
In its wake, social and moral turmoil engulfed America and much of the world. Kennedy’s assassination did not, of course, cause it; but it surely marked the time when the floodgates of change were flung open.
The shock of his death seemed to jolt us out of the docile ’50s era and into the turbulent ’60s, as traditional values began to crumble and nonconformity became the rule. The short-lived hippie movement was a radical manifestation, but it represented the broader movement of youth away from respect for authority and common social norms. “Freedom” to do whatever we wanted—“sex, drugs, and rock and roll, baby”—became the anthem. Generally speaking, all Judeo-Christian institutions, and many of their core moral tenets, began to be openly challenged and abandoned.
Some of our society’s illnesses needed to be changed—civil rights, for example—but other changes led us down a different path of moral corruption. Many of the moral ills we see in society today that have become “the new normal” were fathered by the social revolution of the ’60s. Where are these changes taking us? When our children look back on the 100th anniversary of Kennedy’s death, what kind of world will they live in? What are we leaving for them?
In his famous inaugural address Kennedy said to the nation: “Now the trumpet summons us again—not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need—not as a call to battle, though embattled we are—but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’—a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”
Nearly 54 years later, how are we doing in our war against “the common enemies of man” he identified—“tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself”? Our nation and world has changed dramatically in the decades since Kennedy’s death—has it changed for the better?
Anniversaries—even the anniversaries of horrific events—are times for remembering and reflecting. At this 50-year mark, we’re going to spend considerable time reviewing Kennedy’s life and what happened the day he died.
We would probably be better served, though, to spend a greater amount of time reviewing what has happened in our lives since—and give serious thought to where we are going.
For Life, Hope & Truth, I’m Clyde Kilough.