Fifty years since the assassination of John F. Kennedy – a trauma that sparked the first “wall-to-wall” television news coverage, so generations captivated by the young president and his family could view the events – the cruel reality still resonates with those who lived through it.
Similar to how most people who are alive today know exactly where they were when the events of 9/11 occurred, anyone who lived during President Kennedy’s assassination knows exactly where they were when the news was broke to them early in the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963.
“I was in Madison Street Elementary School in the first grade class,” said Mark McGee, Lipscomb Athletics media relations director and adjunct professor. “And our teacher, Mrs. Beachboard, came into the class and told us that the president had been killed.”
“I remember exactly where I was,” said Alan Griggs, associate professor and chair of the department of communications and journalism. “I was in the seventh grade, and I was in a civics classroom. We were being taught by Mr. Basset, the civics teacher. All of the sudden, the door opens, and in comes the assistant principle with a very worried look on his face saying that the president had been shot. We were all just stunned.”
For the next four days, Americans sat glued to their televisions watching all the events unfold. From the assassination of the President on Friday to Jack Ruby’s shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald on Sunday and Kennedy’s funeral on Monday, all of America saw the events unfold in their living room, right in front of their eyes.
“It took over TV,” McGee said. “I think I was sick that weekend, so I was stuck watching black and white TV on the couch for two or three days, and the only thing to watch were the replays of the assassination, Oswald’s shooting on TV and the funeral. The thing I remember the most about the TV coverage wasn’t Oswald getting shot as much as it was the funeral cortege with John, Jr. saluting.”
“They did everything live,” Griggs said. “I’m sitting there as a kid, a seventh grader, and I’m watching all this history unfold. I see not only coverage of the Kennedy assassination, but a few days later, Oswald was shot on live television on NBC. Tom Pettit was the reporter for NBC, and he was saying here comes Oswald now, and then, all of a sudden, you see a guy run into the picture, and you hear shots, and Oswald falls to the ground. Even as a seventh grader, I’m sitting there. My head is spinning. I cannot believe this is going on.
“You have to remember because of the aura of the Kennedy’s, and because this really hadn’t happened in quite a while, everybody was in a state of shock. I remember the funeral being broadcast. Everyone was riveted to the TV. It changed television enormously with all of the wall-to-wall coverage. They didn’t do anything else. All the programming went away. And for the next three days, there was just Kennedy.”
In the ’60s, many Americans believed Kennedy was going to take the country to great heights. They loved that he was young, charismatic and from a well-known, beloved family. The press could not get enough of Jackie, Caroline and John John. Taking that into account, and the fact that it had been more than 60 years since the last time a president had been assassinated, the country was in complete shock.
“Nothing like that had happened since the turn of the century almost,” McGee said. “Hardly anyone alive had experienced a president’s assassination. Kennedy was so popular. He was young and outgoing. It hit people really hard. His administration was known as Camelot. It was going to be a whole new world, a whole new situation, and it got cut down right in the middle of it. He was just getting started.”
“I don’t think any of us who lived during that time got over it,” Griggs said. “It was just like a piece of our heart had been cut out when that occurred because for our generation, we had never experienced anything like that. What the press had named Camelot, the magical years of the young Kennedy couple in the White House, all of that had been blown away with those shots in Dallas. We’ll never know what kind of president he would have made. “
“It was the end of an era before the era really began,” McGee said.
“It’s just something that’s seared on your brain and in your heart,” Griggs said.
Photo credit: Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston