Fifty years ago I sat in my 4th grade classroom at San Jose Elementary School when Mr. Monteith, the 5th grade teacher from the room across the grassy space between our buildings was suddenly banging on the window of our room and shouting something unintelligible before turning and rushing back to his own classroom. His antics were amusing, we thought. When he returned a few minutes later and burst through the door into our classroom to announce the President had been shot, we were stunned to silence. We marched single-file to his room because his had a television and ours did not. We watched as Walter Cronkite soon removed his glasses, choked back what seemed to be tears, and announced that the President was dead.
The world as I knew it felt like it was spinning away, changing into something different that made no sense.
Two days later, on Sunday morning I sat alone at home watching television as Lee Harvey Oswald was killed by Jack Ruby. What I now consider my childhood innocence was obliterated by bullets fired in Dallas, Texas that weekend.
Thirty years ago I flew to Dallas. I felt the need to be at Dealey Plaza on that significant anniversary of the death of President Kennedy. I met many others who were doing as I did that day. I walked the route of the motorcade, stood at the grassy knoll and broke off a piece of the picket fence from where I continue to believe a second assassin fired at our President. I peered through the window of the 6th floor of the former Book Depository building. I listened to Marina Oswald express her belief that her former husband had not acted alone, met the Babushka Lady, the officer in the white hat who stood next to Oswald when he was murdered (and still had the white hat), and many others who had been there that fateful day 30 years earlier. I spoke with, and shook hands with, Nellie Connally, who rode in the car with her husband, the Governor of Texas, and President and Mrs. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. She gave me a copy of the printed program from the ceremony that day in 1993.
What I did not know when I decided to fly to Dallas in November 1993, was that Dealey Plaza was scheduled to be dedicated a National Historic Landmark that day. In a crystal clear moment of deliberate historic amnesia, the plaque makes no mention of the Kennedy assassination. It reads, “This site possesses national significance in commemoration of the history of the United States of America.”
I thought then, as I believe now, that the United States does its best to avoid acknowledging and learning from our painful past. That weekend 20 years ago was a profound reminder to me of our nation’s historic wounds; wounds that have not been healed – wounds of genocide, of slavery, of assassinations and other forms of injustice that continue to afflict us to this day. I believe the great mistrust of government that afflicts our nation today, if not born that day, was greatly exacerbated as a result of the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, the deeply flawed Warren Commission Report, and the efforts to “protect” American citizens from the truth.
Today I will ponder how much has changed since I was 9 years old, and how much has not changed.