Remembering JFK: The day we walked into history

cclick@thestate.comNovember 17, 2013 

If you were alive on Nov. 22, 1963, you remember where you were.

You can recall the routine “before” — the office, the school room, the beauty shop — and the “after,” when CBS anchor Walter Cronkite ripped the five-bell bulletin off the UPI wire and read these words to a stunned nation:


UPI reporter Merriman Smith filed that dispatch at 12:39 p.m. central standard time, nine minutes after President Kennedy was struck fatally by two bullets from behind. Merriman had grabbed the only motorcade radio-telephone and fought with his AP colleague Jack Bell to hang onto it as they raced behind the president’s open limousine to Parkland Hospital. Cronkite, standing by the UPI machine at CBS headquarters in New York, read the bulletin one minute later.

Then the world changed.

Tears were shed. Flags were lowered. Businesses closed. School children stayed home.

Whether you were a Kennedy man or not, you were plucked from ordinary life and into the middle of American history.

The man who won South Carolina for Kennedy

After the bitter shock of losing the man he had helped propel into the White House, Ernest F. “Fritz” Hollings of Charleston remembers the bitter cold.

It had been two days since someone had tapped him on his shoulder at a restaurant on Meeting and Hasell streets in Charleston to say, “Your friend Kennedy’s been shot.” Now Hollings was in Washington, in line with 250,000 other Americans to pay final respects to the fallen leader.

Through the near-freezing temperatures of Sunday night and Monday morning, he and his first wife, Patricia, inched their way to the Capitol where Kennedy’s casket lay in state.

“We walked all night long, six abreast, frozen until six o’clock that morning,” he said. “Six abreast, I’ll never forget it. We were all huddled together trying to keep warm.”

Bobby Kennedy had called him, telling Hollings he had tickets to enter the Capitol so he could avoid the long lines. But Hollings, a former governor who had been “too smart for his britches” and lost the U.S. Senate race in 1962 to Olin Johnston, was not yet in Congress and refused the advantage. After they exited the Rotunda, the couple repaired to the Mayflower Hotel, where Hollings immersed himself in a tub of cold water to take the chill off his bones.

As they arrived at St. Matthew’s Cathedral for the funeral hours later, Hollings looked up to see a fellow South Carolinian, the Rev. I. DeQuincey Newman, the NAACP leader who had battled Hollings for a decade to end segregation.

“He had a derby hat on and a long-tailed coat, striped britches and patent leather shoes with spats,” Hollings recalled. Before Hollings had a chance to greet him, an usher walked up to Newman and said, “Mr. Ambassador, right this way.”

“He didn’t have a ticket but he had the right suit on. They sat him on the third row and they sat me on the 32rd row,” Hollings said. “And I said that’s the sign of the Lord. I’ve been getting him, but he finally got me.”

Hollings spent most of the 50 years after on Capitol Hill, fighting to preserve the state’s textile industry — a promise Kennedy made back in 1960 that put the state in the Democratic column — championing environmental issues, helping the poor and lamenting the era of “cash-and-carry” government.

Early on, he dismissed the Warren Commission’s report, that assassin Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, as “garbage.”

“All that Warren Commission, they can go bag it,” he said Friday. “I never have believed it.”

To this day, Hollings thinks it was the Mafia that took out both John and Bobby Kennedy.

The centrist who admired Kennedy progressivism

By the time former Secretary of Education Richard W. “Dick” Riley stood with candidate Kennedy and his father, the late Ted Riley, on the steps of the S.C. State House in 1960, the 33-year-old Greenville attorney already felt a kinship with the future president.

Riley’s father, chairman of the state Democratic Party, had campaigned for the Massachusetts senator, and his son would often accompany him to the debates. The young Riley had served a stint with the Senate Judiciary Committee and learned to know Senator Kennedy as a progressive who could get things done.

“We were just pleased to death to win the state,” Riley recalled Tuesday. Whether South Carolina would tilt to Kennedy over Republican Richard M. Nixon remained up in the air until the final hours of election night, Riley said.

“The Kennedy people had counted Mississippi and had not counted South Carolina, and I know when my father called in and talked to Bobby Kennedy to say we had carried the state, you could here people screaming all over the place,” Riley said.

That euphoria, that feeling that Kennedy was “a bright light of progressive thinking,” would be extinguished three years later. Riley, sitting in his law office, heard the terrible news from Dallas and called his wife, Ann “Tunky” Riley.

“She was upset and we talked about it for a long time. We just couldn’t believe it,” he said. “We were all choked up. That was a sad, sad moment, because Kennedy had caught everybody’s spark.”

Through a distinguished career that took him from the S.C. State House to the governor’s mansion and to Washington to serve in the Clinton Administration, Riley maintained a friendship with the extended Kennedy family. But amid the cordial connection, there is a longing for the kind of compromise politics Kennedy and others of his generation practiced.

“Listen, there is no comparison,” Riley said. “The situation today troubles me. This is a big powerful moving country and a moving economy and the clear leader in the world politically, and the fact that we can hardly solve problems and deal with issues without people locking in and refusing to negotiate and resolve problems, is troubling.”

The idealistic college student

It was the weekend before the Carolina-Clemson football game and USC freshman John Courson was napping when the hall monitor knocked on his door and uttered these words: “The president has been shot and we think he’s dead.”

“I was stunned,” said Courson, the president pro tempore of the S.C. Senate. Courson and two college friends drove to Washington, stopping in a bus depot in downtown Washington to change into coats and tie before joining those lined along the funeral procession route.

Courson, who had volunteered as a high school student in the 1960 Kennedy campaign, still has pictures he took on that “crystal clear” day as the presidential family and foreign dignitaries walked with Kennedy’s casket from the White House to St. Matthew’s Cathedral. Courson called the scene “miraculous.”

“The fact that the family, they were walking down the street, out in the open, President Johnson, out in the open. Then you had the foreign dignitaries ... all being out in the open when no one knew exactly how this thing would go. That could not happen in today’s society.”

Courson said Kennedy’s lasting legacy is his call to public service.

“I started in the 1960s after his inaugural address thinking about going into the Peace Corps and ended the 1960s by joining the Marine Corps. It was an amazing decade in this country,” Courson said. “To whom one is given much, one needs to return much, and I think he encapsulated that as well as anybody."

The school girl who remembered how “the whole country shut down”

Inez Tenenbaum was in the seventh grade when teachers at her California junior high school informed them of President Kennedy’s death. For the next three days, she and her family, including her father, a World War II veteran still serving in the Navy as a chief petty officer, stayed glued to their television set.

“I remember the fact that he was shot and how devastated everyone was, the children and the teachers,” said Tenenbaum, a former state superintendent of education who is ending a stint as chairman of the Consumer Products Safety Commission. “We didn’t go out to play. We all sat and watched the television.”

“The whole country shut down – it was a universal several days of mourning,” she remembered Tuesday.

Tenenbaum grew up in Pine View, Ga., and spent most of her youth there amid Roosevelt Democrats like her parents, until she traveled with the family to her father’s last tour of duty at Lemoore Naval Air Station. She recalled family talks around the dining room table about patriotism and Kennedy’s call to service.

She thought the Kennedys were the most glamorous people she had ever seen — she has a collection of magazines with Jacqueline Kennedy on the cover. “The Kennedys had so much energy and you wanted to be a part of it and you loved watching it even as a child.”

The military pallbearer

James L. “Jim” Felder had less than two months before he would exit the U.S. Army, and the Sumter native planned to spend most of that on leave looking for a job. But that changed on Nov. 22, 1963.

As the senior member of the Army Honor Guard team, he was ordered back to Fort Myers and then to Andrews Air Force Base to meet the plane bearing the body of the slain president. Over the next days, he and his men would stand guard as the president’s body was autopsied and embalmed, placed in a new casket and then taken to the White House, where they would watch over Kennedy as he lay in repose in the East Room.

His team of eight men from different military branches would navigate the half-ton casket up the steps of the Capitol Sunday to the Rotunda. Monday, they would march three miles beside the caisson bearing Kennedy’s body as the mourners marched from the cathedral to Arlington National Cemetery past one million citizens. It was Felder’s duty to initiate the folding of the American flag that would be presented to Kennedy’s widow.

By the time of Kennedy’s funeral, Felder and his casket team had buried 900 people at Arlington, including the slain civil rights leader Medger Evers. They had practiced weeks earlier in preparation for a presidential funeral because many feared President Hoover was near death.

But the death of a man he had admired since 1956, a president he believed would kick-start civil rights in America, came hard. Two weeks later, Felder’s 28-year-old company commander died suddenly. That’s when Felder began to weep.

With Kennedy, “it was a new day in America, you might say and we were all upbeat and for him to be snuffed out, it took a toll.” Felder said. He went on be elected to the S.C. legislature and head up the state’s Voter Education Project, an initiative rooted in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

The historian with his ear pressed to history

The Kennedy assassination was a moment when personal history became intertwined with political history. That’s how USC history professor Kent Germany thinks of Dallas 50 years later.

Born eight years after the assassination in a small Louisiana town, Germany remembers being an “assassination nerd” as a boy, fixated on the events of Nov. 22, 1963.

“I probably knew more about Kennedy at the age of 12 than I do today,” Germany said Monday. During fifth grade read-aloud time, the young Germany brought in assassination materials and parsed the conspiracy theories that surrounded the Dallas tragedy.

As a history scholar at the University of Virginia and USC, Germany has spent much of his professional life listening to the White House audio tapes of President Kennedy and other presidents who recorded Oval Office meetings from 1940 to 1973.

As a research fellow and editor with the Presidential Recordings Program at UVA’s Miller Center, he has listened to Kennedy’s distinctive Massachusetts voice and discerned in the measured business tones and dry, ironic wit a bit of why Kennedy still holds such sway over the American psyche, why 50 years later the 1960s and Kennedy’s part in that decade still resonate.

“JFK was one of the people who helped create the momentum and helped change people’s perspective,” Germany said. “He became a symbol of what America could become. There are questions of how close he came, but Kennedy becomes whomever we want him to become.”

Certainly, the glamour of the First Family as well as the charisma of the sprawling Kennedy clan helped cement the Kennedy mythology in the public mind. But it was also turbulent events that followed — the civil rights protests, Vietnam War, assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the Watergate scandal — that caused Americans to question government and hearken back to what seemed to be a gentler time before November 1963.

“The Kennedy assassination became a personal moment for people; it became a nationalizing moment,” he said.

Staff writer Jamie Self contributed to this story.

The State is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service