Fifty years ago today was a day known to many as “the day the world stood still,” as President John F. Kennedy was assassinated just after noon while riding in his motorcade in Dallas.
While many still tell the tale of where they were, what they read in the newspaper, what they saw on television, the sting of the heartbreak, the overwhelming curiosity surrounding Kennedy’s final moments still resonates in both the older and the younger generations today.
Dr. Daryl A. Carter, assistant professor and graduate coordinator in East Tennessee State University’s Department of History, said Thursday afternoon that Kennedy’s legacy and time in office is an important part of history.
“Kennedy is ... stuck in our memory at the age of 46,” Carter said. “He had much more promise than he accomplished ... during his brief time in office, but he inspired an entire generation of Americans, he continues to inspire Americans and I think there’s a great level of interest, and rightly so, in both the man and his unfortunate demise.”
In 1946, just two years after he was released from active duty with the Navy, Carter said Kennedy began his probe into political life.
“He had just come back from the war, he was still very sick, but the Kennedy family, and he in particular, were also interested in public service,” he said. “He comes out of the war with the idea that ... certain things need to be done. He focuses on education, he focuses on jobs, but he also focuses on foreign affairs, which was his primary interest.”
Carter said after a brutal primary process in Massachusetts, and Kennedy’s ongoing troubles with Addison’s disease and his war injuries, he takes his seat in the House of Representatives.
“He spends the next three terms in the House of Representatives quite bored. He quickly realizes that the presidency is where the action’s at,” he said. “Considering that he had been gravely ill most of his life, and even, in fact, had the Last Rites administered to him on previous occasions, he’s got a fatalistic streak about him. He’s really a young man in a hurry and he’s not a very good congressman, in part because he’s so bored and he’s chasing women and he’s sick.”
Following his time in the House, Kennedy runs for the U.S. Senate, defeating incumbent Republican Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., and serves from 1952-1960.
“While he does have some happy times in 1953 –– he gets married to Jacqueline Bouvier — he decides by 1954 he’s got to have surgery or he’s going to, in his words, “wind up as a cripple,” Carter said.
After a seemingly tough recovery process, Carter said Kennedy was physically improving in the late 1950s.
“By the end of the ’50s, he has this very healthy look that we remember today. The vigorous appearance,” he said.
Carter said after an unsuccessful run to be Adlai Stevenson’s running mate during the 1956 Democratic National Convention, Kennedy got serious about his presidential ambitions.
“By 1957, Kennedy is not only a national figure, but Kennedy is also clearly running for the presidency and he’s now, for the very first time in a lot of ways, doing his homework about what is happening in the U.S. Congress,” he said. “He’s getting invited to speeches and dinner parties all across the United States to help promote the Democratic Party. He mounts a massive re-election campaign in 1958, not because he needed to, not because he had any particular strong opponent in 1958, but for political reasons of not only getting re-elected, but demonstrating that he was real political viability, that he’s really secure in his home state of Massachusetts.”
While in the election process, Kennedy’s Catholic faith came into question and his allegiance to the United States.
“The country as a whole is Protestant and there’s a real belief that ... Kennedy’s allegiance will be to the Catholic church in Rome, not to the United States,” Carter said. “There’s an incredible amount of anti-Catholic bigotry. It hurts him in the South. It hurts him in a lot of other places that are heavily Protestant, but he’s able to overcome it.”
Winning the presidential election against then-Vice President Richard Nixon brought a fresh face and enthusiasm to Washington.
While in office, Kennedy dealt with numerous foreign relations concerns, including the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs invasion, and controversy concerning the Berlin Wall.
At home, Carter said Kennedy, along with his brother, Bobby Kennedy, eventually took a stand on the growing Civil Rights movement, and reportedly called for a Civil Rights Bill on the grounds that it was a “moral issue.”
With re-election looking favorable, he said Kennedy was going on his trip to Texas with confidence.
After touring San Antonio, Houston and Fort Worth, Carter said Dallas was a concern for many, but said the president had a tremendous welcoming.
“Dallas was a particular worry for them, as a result of the ultra-conservative crowd in Dallas, the (Ku Klux Klan), the Citizen’s Council groups, the John Birch Society people,” he said. “He encounters huge swelling crowds as he gets into downtown Dallas ... so much so that the cars in the motorcade are having trouble getting through. It’s a wonderful welcome for him.”
As the president, along with the first lady, traveled through downtown Dallas, Carter said multiple shots were fired at Kennedy, and he was taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital where he was pronounced dead.
Kennedy’s alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested, but was killed two days later by Jack Ruby.
Carter said conspiracy theories about the assassination are still being talked about today.
“As a scholar, I would say that there are two official reports. The Warren Commission of 1964 ... basically says that Lee Harvey Oswald did it and did it alone. Then the House-led committee on assassinations did their report in the late ’70s, saying there’s a high probability of a conspiracy in a second gunman,” he said. “My personal feeling is there’s something screwy there, that there’s probably some conspiracy. On the other hand, there’s a lot of evidence to say that Lee Harvey Oswald did this.”
He also said that another conspiracy revolving around Ruby killing Oswald was that Ruby was allegedly sent to the jail to kill Oswald to prevent him from talking about the assassination.
While people still question the validity of the events that unfolded on Nov. 22, 1963, Carter said some of the conspiracy theories can be closed.
“I will say briefly that it (the assassination) has damaged the country’s political system and its social and political fabric. I will also say that ... if you look objectively at what happened at the assassination and right after, you realize that some of those things aren’t really conspiracies,” he said. “For example, some conspiracy theorists say, ‘Well, why was the temporary casket –– used to take the body back to Washington –– buried at sea?’ Well, it was buried at sea because Bobby Kennedy ordered it to be buried at sea. He didn’t want it to become a relic in a museum. They say, ‘Well, they stole the body from Dallas.’ The truth is they did, but Jacqueline Kennedy refused to leave Dallas without it.
“There are some (questions about Kennedy’s assassination) that really need to be answered. There are others that, if you use a little common sense, they’re not conspiracies at all,” Carter said.
As for a definitive answer as to just what happened in Dallas, he said he doesn’t foresee ever getting closure.
“I think too much evidence is lost,” Carter said. “Too much evidence has been destroyed, purposefully and on accident. I still think there’s a possibility that Lee Harvey Oswald is what everybody says he was.”
Thursday evening, Carter held a public lecture “Jack Kennedy, the Assassination, and America: A Lecture on President Kennedy, His Life, His Career, and the Crime of the Century,” at the Johnson City Public Library from 6-8 p.m., to discuss the president’s personal and political life.
“He continues to resonate with the American public. His presidency, while legislatively was a failure, rhetorically and symbolically is incredibly important for the American people when you talk about the space program, when you talk about civil rights,” he said. “This ‘call to service’ was so important and added a bit of grandeur and ...beauty in politics that really hadn’t been there before.”