“I can’t remember if I cried When I read about his widowed bride Something touched me deep inside The day the music died” — “American Pie,” Don McLean
“I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
Something touched me deep inside
The day the music died”
— “American Pie,” Don McLean
Mama cried. I fought.
Friday November 22, 1963.
How the nation’s music went silent
An assassin’s bullet kills President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. A deep black grief grips America. Hopes go unfulfilled. Speeches go unmade. Promises go unrealized. Policies go adrift. Innocence dies. Dreams are vanquished and the music goes silent. A nation mourns.
A thirteen year old boy sits patiently in study hall at the library of New Albany Junior High School. A raspy voice on the school intercom interrupts the hushed solitude with a startling announcement – “President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas, Texas. Please proceed in an orderly fashion to your next class and await further details.” The reaction to the news is mixed. Some of the girls start to cry, teachers gasp. A few unruly students actually applaud, no doubt in reaction to hostility toward the President they had heard from bigoted parents at home, due to the Kennedy administration’s enforcement of court ordered racial integration.
Basketball practice was the young seventh graders’ next class, which required a short walk across Apple St. to the gymnasium. Once the students safely arrived, the coach advised that no one would dress out for practice on that day. Instead, we assembled in the bleachers and awaited further news from Dallas. Soon the announcement was made, “The President is dead.”
Once again the reaction was mixed. A reverent hush fell on the assembled students at first. However, after a moment, one of the older boys was heard to say with a vile racial slur, “I’m glad he’s dead.” Hearing those words, the young boy impulsively dove from his seat two rows up and delivered his best left hook to the body of the older boy. A brief scuffle ensued before the coach intervened and separated the youngsters. Neither boy suffered any injury, except to his pride. Although, the younger boy lost two buttons on his homemade flannel shirt. His Aunt Myrtle had given him the shirt a week earlier, for his thirteenth birthday.
School was soon dismissed and somehow, in all the confusion, buses began assembling and parents began showing up to retrieve their children. The boy with the torn shirt waited on the steps outside of the gymnasium for his weeping mother to arrive, give comfort and make sense of the chaos.
Fifty five years later, I’m still that little boy. Today I see those same gymnasium steps every day from my front porch. My house is next door. There they stand, as a reminder of the day America was forever changed. The day an entire generation can never forget. Simple concrete stairs with the ability to magically transport me to that fall day in 1963, when mama cried, the music died and I fought like hell!
Images steal the music from an entire generation
Despite my maternal grandfather’s reservations about Kennedy’s Catholicism, my family had been active and vocal supporters of the Kennedy-Johnson ticket in 1960. We had Kennedy bumper stickers on our cars. I have vivid memories of my father and grandfather proudly and defiantly sporting Kennedy buttons on their Sunday best suits.
Haunting images, forever seared into our memories, occupied the nation’s focus the next several days. A shaken Walter Cronkite, removing his glasses and solemnly announcing the President’s death to the stunned world, was replayed over and over again. First Lady Jackie, dressed in pink and stained with her husband’s blood and fragments of his exploded brain, dramatically reveals the horror that had taken place.
A grim-faced Vice President Lyndon Johnson stands in the crowded compartment of Air Force One and is sworn in as the 36th President of the United States, while President Kennedy’s body is loaded for the trip back to the White House. That same day Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin, is arrested by Dallas police.
On Sunday morning, November 24, Oswald was scheduled to be transferred from police headquarters to the county jail. I was in my grandparents’ house watching the whole scene play out on television when, out of the gathered crowd, a man drew a pistol and shot Oswald at point-blank range. My grandfather and I, along with the rest of the world, watched Oswald get killed on live television! Innocence was indeed dying. Oswald was perhaps the most despised man on the planet that day, but to witness his execution on live television left us all with conflicted emotions and queasy stomachs. The assailant was soon identified as a local strip club owner, Jack Ruby.
“What has become of us?”
In the midst of the shock I remember my grandfather abruptly leaving the room and mumbling, “What has become of us?”
My grandmother’s reaction was much more predictable. “Cut that TV off. Get this mess out of my house. Today is the Sabbath and we must give it the honor it deserves!”
Although I was not permitted to watch it in real time, that same day the President’s flag-draped coffin was moved from the White House to the Capitol on a wagon pulled by six grey horses. They were accompanied by one riderless black horse, with boots placed backwards in the stirrups. Hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life gathered on Pennsylvania Avenue and openly wept as the President’s casket passed. They remembered the music and how it had made them feel, but they could no longer hear its melody.
On Monday, November 25th, 1963, President Kennedy was laid to rest in the shadows of Robert E. Lee’s home in Arlington National Cemetery.
For me, the most indelible image of that day will always be little three-year-old John John Kennedy stepping forward and crisply saluting his slain father as the parade passed before him. It’s an image that I can see as clearly today as I did fifty-five years ago.
Struggling to bring back the music
John Fitzgerald Kennedy appealed to the better angels of our nature. He told us, “The torch has been passed to a new generation.” He challenged us to, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” As the nation struggled to come to grips with the senseless act that took his life, many recalled the prophetic words of his inaugural address: “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days, nor in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”
President Kennedy put forth a progressive agenda and challenged us to come together and create a “new frontier.” “Let us begin,” he had said.
President Johnson, in an effort to heal a grieving nation, and strike the band back up, wisely picked up on that theme by telling the nation, “Let us continue.”
And continue we did. President Johnson, in his “Great Society” program, passed sweeping domestic legislation aimed at the elimination of poverty and racial injustice. The Texas-style whirlwind of the Johnson administration passed more progressive legislation than any other since Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” Major new programs to address education, medical care, urban decay, rural poverty and transportation were advanced during this period.
Americans started to believe again. Perhaps we really could be the shining city on a hill that our Puritan forefathers dreamed of becoming.
Then in 1968 tragedy struck again. On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. I was playing basketball in the back yard when Mama called me inside and told me the news. Once again Walter Cronkite broke the news to a stunned public, by succinctly stating, “Dr. Martin Luther King, the apostle of nonviolence in the civil rights movement, has been shot to death in Memphis, Tennessee.”
The Dreamer was dead.
Hope was dimmed.
The Gospel preacher who had a dream and called us to be “drum majors for justice” was silenced. The music had died — again. Mama cried — again. I had no one to fight, but my anger was palpable. The nation erupted in riots in 120 cities, and chaos once again ruled for a few days.
It seemed that every time leaders emerged who called us to put aside self interest and dream of a heavenly kingdom here on earth, one based on Biblical truths, morality, even our own creed that “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights,” it was viewed as radical, and violent acts halted the change revolution. Just as the orchestra got tuned up, reactionary forces always seemed to kill the conductor!
Only two months later on June 5th, 1968, another inspiring apostle of peace was shot and killed.
“At least we still have Bobby,” one of my aging aunts had said after hearing of Dr. King’s death. She spoke for the precious few white southern liberals of her day with that sentiment. There were scant few in the south of that view, but for them Bobby Kennedy was truly their great hope! When he spoke, they genuinely heard the music.
He’s the one who came to the Mississippi Delta and saw, firsthand, the poverty and swollen bellies of hungry black babies. We all knew they were there, but were unsure as to what we should or could do about it. He’s the one who knelt on those dirt floors and tried to comfort mothers who could not feed their babies. He’s the one who went into deep Appalachia and saw white poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, and illiteracy. He went to the broken places in America. He went where most politicians did not go. He marched with Cesar Chavez and migrant farm workers in California, and went into the worst slums of America’s urban decay.
Bobby Kennedy let those kind of things get to him. He could not ignore them; they troubled him too much. The damned, the despised, those marginalized on the jagged edges of society were his constituency. And they believed in him!
On that June night in 1968, Mama didn’t just cry – she screamed. I was sound asleep when I heard her shrill scream. I ran into the den and all she could do was point at the television. There it was. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy had been shot in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California. Once again the world saw a man shot and killed on live television. This time I didn’t want to fight. I was too tired, too sad, too distraught, too damned disgusted. The music had faintly been heard again with Kennedy’s win in the California presidential primary, but as its volume increased, the crescendo was once again silenced by an assassin’s bullet. My grandfather’s words attacked my groggy brain again, “What has become of us?”
What might have been
Now here we are today, 50 to 55 years later, still yearning to hear the music. Occasionally, the orchestra tunes up and gets our hopes up again. A southern Sunday school teacher and peanut farmer who tells us he will never lie to us makes us hear a faint distant tune. Then an affable actor tells us it’s morning in America, and we think we hear a little jingle. A young governor from a place called Hope plays a saxophone and we temporarily feel the beat. And finally an African-American with “hope and change” lyrics tunes up and we hear a little melody through the static. But the band is not harmonizing or quite back in rhythm yet!
Alas , here we are today! Our President turns loose the dogs of division at every turn. Watch a Trump political rally and you will hear anger, fear, rage, self-aggrandizement, name calling, and dangerous macho rhetoric. Not to mention outright lies at every turn. No appeal to our better angels has ever been heard from Donald J. Trump.
As immigrant children are taken from their parents on the southern border, as the rich get richer and the poor are simply ignored, as the president cannot even summon the words to condemn Nazi and white supremacists, or murderous regimes in Russia and Saudi Arabia, and as hateful divisive rhetoric spews from the cauldrons at the top of our government, Hope seems like an antiquated relic of days long past.
Do we remember what the music sounded like? Better yet, can we remember what it felt like?
The poet Whittier tells us: “Of all the words of tongue and pen the saddest of these is what might have been.”
Believing the music is still there
We mourn for an America that might have been. We long for a leader who appeals to the better angels of our nature. We want to know that, with collective sacrifice, a better tomorrow awaits us all! We yearn to be called to something greater than ourselves.
There is goodness in this world. I want to once again feel something worth diving down two rows of bleachers and fighting for.
My grandfather lamented, “What has become of us?” I’m not sure what has become of us, but I want to believe the music is still there. That the volume is just turned down and the static overwhelms the melody. But it’s still there.
Everything in me wants to believe the America we all love is still there. We wait, we yearn, we pray for inspired leadership to show us the way, to strike up the band, to make us feel the music again. But perhaps, if we are ever to hear the music again, it’s up to us, “the people,” to lift every voice and sing. We must sing louder than the cynical uproar and the menacing racket. We must sing psalms of hope, not fear; songs that uplift, not downgrade; tunes that praise allies, not enemies; all with melodies of unity, not division.
Then, and only then, will inspired leadership emerge! It’s up to us to create the environment where such leadership can flourish.
Sing America, sing.
Sing a song full of faith,
Sing a song full of hope.
President Kennedy’s words resonate: “Let us begin.”
Let us begin — again — before it’s too late!
For other articles by Patterson, see: America’s Dilemma or check out Guest Authors in the main menu.John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr, New Albany MS, Robert F. Kennedy