If you are old enough, and remember, you might want to pause and reflect and think of where you were and what you were doing on Friday, November 22nd, 1963. Forty-Eight years ago, at the age of 46, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. His brother Robert would be assassinated five years later.
For those of us who were raised in the Christian religion, and active in the Civil Rights Movement, we often commented on the historic irony that Jesus Christ and Martin Luther King, Jr, were killed at the age of 39. The Kennedys, by unspeakable acts of evil, brothers in their forties; RFK at 42. Only history can evaluate the accident of greater longevity.
I especially remember JFK's assassination because it occurred after a June 22nd walk in the White House Rose Garden and conversation between Dr. King and the president. It also followed Dr. King's "I Have A Dream" speech at the March of Washington on August 28th and the bombing of Sixteenth Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on Sept 15th, 1963, where four young African-America girls were murdered while they were attending Sunday School.
During the June 22nd, 1963 walk and talk between JFK and Dr. King, the president warned Dr. King that there were two "agents of a foreign power" who had "infiltrated and penetrated" his "inner circle". The two men described by President Kennedy were Stanley David Levison and Hunter Pitts "Jack" O'Dell. Both men were close friends of mine. Stanley Levison and I often spent lots of time on the phone talking or meeting about Dr. King as we tried to develop the best oral or written advice we could provide to him on several major political matters related to his leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Civil Rights Movement in general.
JFK warned Dr. King about the danger "the two agents" posed to both him and to the president. He drew a parallel between Dr. King's "inner circle "and an event that allegedly brought down the government of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan of the UK. A minister in the Macmillan cabinet, Lord Profumo, was outed for his affair with a prostitute Kristine Keeler. Ms. Keeler was also at the same time having an affair with a top Soviet agent.
Dr. King told me that the president had said to him something to the effect of "if they [enemies of the Civil Rights Movement] shoot you down, they'll shoot us down too," undermining the president's efforts to get a Civil Rights Bill through Congress.
By November 1963 both Jack O'Dell and Stanley Levison had become, for the president and his brother's Justice Dept, "persona non-grata."
It was against this background that Dr. King wanted to be very careful about the public statement he was being requested to issue in response to President Kennedy's assassination 48 years ago today. Dr. King flew up from Atlanta, the following day. We met in the lounge of the then Eastern Airlines Terminal at LaGuardia airport in New York. After three to four hours together we crafted a statement that he felt appropriate to issue to the press about JFK's assassination.
It was during this meeting at LaGuardia and during subsequent meetings with other members of Dr. King's "kitchen cabinet" that we developed an important political thesis following Kennedy's assassination. This thesis was that it was unlikely that there would be any major transformative change in race relations in America unless it was initiated or occurred during the political leadership of a white southerner as president of the United States. (This blog is not the place for extended discussion of this thesis. Anyone who is interested can contact me and I would be pleased to give them an extended summary of the thinking underlying our political judgment.)
I have not yet read the recent book by MSNBC commentator, Chris Mathews on John F. Kennedy. The comments and reviews have been favorable. Most books I have read about JFK seem to wrestle with a balance between historical facts and Camelot romanticism.
A colleague and friend of mine, Leon B. Kassman has shared with me data that provides meaningful yet unpublished new information about people's responses to JFK's assassination within five days of the event.
Mr. Kassman was a young psychology Ph.D. candidate at New York University in November 1963. As part of his doctoral studies he designed a questionnaire to find out the raw real-time responses to the president's assassination. The questionnaire was sent to random persons from the Dallas, TX phone book, and persons living in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. He received detailed replies to his rather extensive questionnaire from an amazing 70% of the persons who received them.
Before writing this blog, I went back and read some the answers to the questionnaires sent out by Leon Kassman. The various answers of respondents made me rethink again where I was and what I was doing when President Kennedy was assassinated.
Do you remember where you were, what you were doing, and what you thought at the time?
This post has been modified since its original publication.