November 22, 1963
Few Americans that were alive during latter half of the 20th century can forget what happened on November 22, 1963. The assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was a critical blow not only to the country itself, but also to its citizens. What happened on that day, 50 years ago today, remains as fresh in the minds of those who lived through that day as if it had happened yesterday. Some say that day marked the loss of America’s innocence and things were never the same afterwards.
A Nation in Shock
The assassination of JFK was one of the most shocking events to Americans that lived through that day and the days following. How unbelievable and unreal that day was to the hearts and minds of Americans can still be captured in the memories of those who remember it. We interviewed six people who recounted that day for us and most revealed how unbelievable the news was. In fact, the news was so unreal that many first believed what they had heard was a joke.
“These things don’t happen in America.” – Lee Ann
Lee Ann, who was in junior high school and lived in Texas at the time of the JFK assassination. She remembered laughing when she first heard about the assassination, believing it was a joke. She said at the time she thought, “These things don’t happen in America” and therefore it could not be true. As the day progressed however and she was to learn that the news was indeed true. At a later class that day, some students were talking about it, and one of the girls who’d seen her laugh at the initial hearing of the news made sure to tattle to the other classmates that Lee Ann had laughed when she first heard about it.
Vera, lived in Los Angeles and was in her mid-20s at the time of the assassination. She was outdoors working in her yard when a neighbor drove up to tell her the news. As this neighbor had always been quite a prankster, she paid no attention to her. But, upon her neighbor’s insistence that it was true, she finally went inside to see the news on the television. Vera said that before the shootings of Robert F. Kennedy and Ronald Regan, events like the JFK assassination were unheard of.
“We were shell shocked.” – Maureen
Maureen graduated high school in June that year and was living in Alhambra, California (a suburb of Los Angeles). She too recalled believing what she’d heard was a joke initially, because her thought her father always made jokes. It took him insisting he was serious and then turning on the television to convince her otherwise. She noted the fact that the 3 days between the death of JFK and his burial were mainly a blur to her, as she remained glued to the television set. She could not recall eating or sleeping at all, she only remembered watching everything unfold on the television. She said, “We were shell shocked” and recalled thinking, “no it couldn’t happen here”. She felt she couldn’t imagine anything ever affecting her that way again. She said of JFK, “His true legacy was that he gave you such hope.” JFK gave the country hope and motivated young people. He had such an aura of optimism that people feel that there was nothing they could not do in this country. She agreed wholeheartedly with her idol, Judy Garland, and what Judy said upon leaving Peter Lawford’s home after the assassination was announced. Judy said, “It’s such a tragedy for the country.”
Cathy was in junior high at the time of the JFK assassination and lived in Arcadia, California (a suburb of Los Angeles). She said the assassination was the last thing on anyone’s mind that would happen. When she heard it in class, the teacher was so shocked and devastated that the classroom went dead silent. It left her with a weird feeling. She felt there was a darkness then and recalled it was a very somber time. Like Maureen, Cathy also recalled being glued to the television set watching everything unfold over the next three days. She recalled it was all you could find on the TV at the time to watch. The event and its aftermath had consumed all the channels.
Robert was in his forties at the time of the JFK assassination and lived in Los Angeles County. He and a sales manager were driving around visiting clients and had stopped for a bite to eat in Canoga Park, CA. The place they had stopped to eat had a television set which was reporting on the assassination. Neither he nor the sales manager could believe what they were seeing and hearing it was such a shock. The news channels did not have a lot of information out yet, and they both drove home for the day to follow the story as it developed. He recalls when he drove home that day how empty the freeways were. People were staying home to follow the news covering all the developments regarding the assassination.
“They stole our dream.” – Nancy
Nancy was in her mid-20s at the time attending graduate school at San Diego State. She had voted for Kennedy, so his assassination was very traumatic. She recalls just wandering around aimlessly about the school as many other students did that day. Kennedy embodied for her and so many others, a feeling of hope that things were going to be different. Kennedy had energized the young people to take part in volunteerism. That magic was gone after Kennedy’s assassination. A friend of hers summed it all up by saying “They stole our dream.”
A Second Turning
The once thought bad joke obviously turned into reality for the nation. “Even if America had not changed on the outside, an irreversible inner change had begun. A new wedge was penetrating the national psyche.” (Strauss, p.171) The new wedge Strauss speaks of was the “The Second Turning” or “Consciousness Revolution” which lasted from 1964 – 1984. In the 20 years that followed Kennedy’s death, the American spirit become anxious about what would come next. Although for the sake of remaining in the 1960’s era, this paper will focus on the changes in popular culture and trends that occurred over the 5 years following the Kennedy assassination from 1964 – 1969.
In 1964 began the era, which eroded the confidence in the American way of life and then the way of life itself. (Strauss, p.172) This obvious questioning of the American way of life became echoed on television, as shows like “The Munsters”, “The Addams Family” and “Gilligan’s Island” all debuted that year. Both “The Munsters” and “The Addams Family” were unusual families in almost every way with supernatural powers additionally. Occasionally, the television show “The Addams Family” featured “guest characters who share the Addamses' tastes, which, along with the fact that the family obviously purchases its yak meat, explosives, etc. from somewhere, implies an entire subculture of people who share the family's tastes.” (Wikimedia) Also in 1964, the American confidence in government, technology and authority was openly questioned in films such as Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe and Seven Days. (Strauss, p. 172).
1966 - “a curious mood of…questioning, doubt and frustration” – James Reston
During 1966, the 3rd top grossing film was “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, played by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton respectively as Martha and George. (Wikipedia) The films was as far from “a 1950s perfect married couple as you can get, alternatively badgering, berating, abusing and loving each other, both alone and accompanied by the naive young married couple that have come over for a nightcap.” (IMDB) The film took the idea of dysfunction in married life and amplified it to reflect one of the best exaggerations of a couple at their very worst.
The film’s success was a clear sign that the mood in American had shifted. Americans were beginning to question the old narrative of the perfect relationship between a husband and wife that the 1950s had imposed upon them for so long. Americans were beginning to want to see a less than perfect view of married couples and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” was a film that illustrated those imperfections and then some.
1967 – An “internal crisis,…extremist politics” and “escapism among young persons”
– James Restin
During 1967 the internal crisis Reston speaks of seemed focused on civil rights and the rejection of authority and the Vietnam War itself. In mid-July 1967, race riots break out in New Jersey and Detroit and a prison riot in Florida leaves 37 people dead. On July 23rd, the 124th Street riots in Detroit labeled one of “the worst riots in US History” left 43 people dead, “342 injured and 1,400 buildings burned”. (Wikipedia) By August that year, race riots had spread into Washington DC. Civil Rights protesters were so disenchanted with the system in place that they were willing to fight, even against the threat of death to achieve equal rights. By November 15, 1967, their hard work paid off and the Civil Rights movement gained a long overdue victory in the courts as the legal definition of murder was extended “to include the killing of blacks”. (Wikimedia)
The questioning of authority and the validity of the Vietnam War were highlighted by some famous denouncements both. In April of 1967, both Martin Luther King and boxer Muhammad Ali condemned the Vietnam War. Ali refused military service and King vocalized his denouncement of the war during a religious service in New York City. (Wikimedia)
In September 1967, Jim Morrison too bucked authority by defying the sensors of the Ed Sullivan Show by singing the part of the lyrics that say “higher” in the Door’s #1 song, “Light My Fire”, after they had asked Morrison to remove the lyric due to the drug reference. (Wikipedia) This gesture was not only a nod to the drug culture at the time but also a clear statement on how the counterculture at the time viewed authority – they despised it.
1968 - “violence and defiance,…protest and reaction” and “a widespread feeling…that things were getting out of hand” - James Restin
The year of 1968 was known for what got out of hand at home and overseas. At the start of the year, the Tet Offensive, led to over four thousand casualties of US forces and allies, as well as over 16,000 wounded and nearly 600 missing.
Then came the assignations of 1968 with Martin Luther King’s death on April 4th and Robert F. Kennedy’s death on June 6th. Their murders “completed an assassination trilogy that struck many as the tragic if natural outgrowth of unstoppable passion and violence.” (Strauss, p.173) The death of Martin Luther King launched major rioting in several US Cities in the days that followed and, Americans who were following the political career of Robert F. Kennedy as he campaigned for president in 1968 were crushed by his death.
Maureen mentioned her personal experience on the day that Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. At the time, she lived just a short drive from the Ambassador Hotel where Robert Kennedy was shot. She recalls still reeling from the JFK assassination when “Bobby” was killed. (Bobby Kennedy was the first person she voted for in the California primary.) Her girlfriend, Ellie was in attendance that evening at the Ambassador and although Maureen did not attend, she decided to watch the coverage on television. She saw the whole disturbing scene unfold via live coverage and her friend Ellie showed up shortly afterwards completely hysterical. They both cried. Maureen was so overwhelmed and destroyed by Bobby’s death that she didn’t want to think about it and didn’t want any part of it what was happening around her. She recalled having spent the following 2 years after the RFK assassination, as a recluse supported solely by her mother. “It was a devastating time,” she said.
“This is no dream, this is really happening.” – Rosemary Woodhouse
In the top ten highest grossing films of 1968 was “Rosemary’s Baby”. In the film, Mia Farrow stars as Rosemary who is betrayed by her husband as he trades her fertility to the Satan worshiping couple next door in exchange for advances in his career. Rosemary in turn conceives a child who ends up being son of Satan. While Rosemary becomes suspicious as her pregnancy develops further along, she does not learn until the very end after the child is born, who the child’s real father was. In the film, Rosemary is misled by not only her husband, but also by neighbors posing as friends. Rosemary feels alone and that she can trust no one. She fights to try and save her own life and the life of her unborn baby. A lot of Rosemary’s distrust seemed to allude to the distrust Americans felt towards government and authority. After three assassinations of prominent figures in the country, the defeats in Vietnam, Americans were beginning to believe that they could not trust anyone any longer and the “Rosemary’s Baby” helped to highlight that fact
1969 - “frustration, destruction, counter-violence, racial tension and fear” – James Restin
The year of 1969 marked some dark events in the days of Americans. Not only was it was the bloodiest year in the Vietnam War, but “three landmark events – Apollo 11, Woodstock, and Chappaquiddick – dramatized the most poignant contradictions of the Awakening-era America.” (Strauss, p.173) The moon landing was a great step for those who believed in science and technology yet diverted resources from the poor. (Srauss, p.173) The event of Chappaquiddick that Ted Kennedy was involved in, “exemplified American’s declining standards of public decorum and private virtue – and their flight from the suffocating duties of family life and child rearing”. (Strauss p. 173)
“Transfixed in front of a television screen for unnatural periods of time.” – Neil Postman
During the year 1969 the debut of children’s television series, “Sesame Street” helped to exemplify this flight from child rearing. The show was meant to be both educational and entertaining for its young viewers. (Wikimedia) “Sesame Street” allowed parents to leave their children to watch the television unrestricted as well as relieved parents “of the responsibility of teaching their preschool children how to read--no small matter in a culture where children are apt to be considered a nuisance.” (Postman) These reasons seemed to “justify allowing a 4 or 5-year-old to sit transfixed in front of a television screen for unnatural periods of time.” (Postman)