11/18/2013 01:17 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

JFK: A Death in the Family

We took it personally, the death of John F. Kennedy, in black communities all over the country.

I was 11-years-old the day he died. We were out for recess when our teachers got the news. And when we finally knew he was really dead, I remember someone -- a teacher... a janitor... I'm not sure which -- saying, "Oh, they got 'im. I knew they were going to get 'im."

We had been crying at our desks, heads down, eyes shut tight. No one could work. No one could think, let alone speak. When the awful news came, the adults, who had tried to keep the children from knowing how afraid they were, wept and wailed.

One of our teachers, Mamie Till Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till -- a black teenager who was lynched in 1955 -- may have seen it coming. But the rest of us had hoped that this man who had helped free Martin Luther King, Jr. from jail and federalized the Alabama National Guard to stand up to Gov. George Wallace would live long enough to begin, however subtly, to make truly lasting changes.

But... they got 'im.

And we stumbled home, eyes filled with tears, unable to escape the awful truth. Every car radio, every record store speaker, every living room TV was blasting the news.

I took it even more personally than most. I had a letter from the man they'd killed. I had written to him -- my parents could not believe the audacity of it. But I had done it anyway.

And he had written back. And he had promised me that if I wanted to attend college, the programs he was implementing would ensure that I could attend college. All I had to do was stay in school, keep my grades up, and hang onto the packet of information that was sent along with that letter.

It was my prize possession. My hope.

But... they got 'im.

And in my 11-year-old mind, it seemed the absolute end of not just my dream, but everyone's. The black community mourned in a way I had never seen before. The light went out of our eyes. We feared for our lives...our children's lives. Our children's futures.

And when little John John saluted the man we had also loved almost like family... black mothers around the country sobbed as if he were their baby boy, whose father had been cut down so brutally. Many of them knew firsthand how that felt. And it stirred old, forgotten feelings that ran deep. We wanted to hug Jackie. Watch the kids while she rested, if she could.

We took it personally.

Today, it is very difficult for me to imagine feeling that way about a public figure, though I feel it again whenever I watch a television show or read an article about JFK. Yes, I rejoiced when Obama won, but...we are so very different, so very distant from our "leaders" now. And they from us.

When JFK spoke, we believed him. We wanted to believe him. Thousands of young people joined the Peace Corps or became teachers, scientists... skeptics, rebels... because he told us the torch had been passed to a new generation.

We wanted to be part of that, young black folks. We hoped this new generation would give us a seat at the table. We'd watched this man do some pretty amazing things on our behalf -- we were truly optimistic. Most of us.

Some of the men in our neighborhood had predicted "they" would kill him for those things he'd done. Which was why we never took umbrage when he didn't seem to be moving fast enough. We knew he faced a mighty "foe." We had run "up North" in unprecedented numbers to get away from at it.

But we also knew that "they" weren't confined to the South.

And yet, when "they" got 'im... we were stunned. Staggered. If they would kill their best and brightest... what hope was there for us now?

Today, we're damned near used to losing our best and brightest. Sometimes one at a time,
sometimes by the dozen. This country started to turn a new kind of mean on November, 22, 1963. If you're old enough to remember that day... you may feel that way, too.

Some movies, some music, some random moments evoke a nostalgia in me that turns, rapidly, to an ache deep down in my soul somewhere. I yearn for the innocent, unfettered joy of that little girl who was so happy to get that letter from my president -- MY president -- that day.

But then I remember 9-year-old Christina Green who was so happy to go to a Safeway grocery store a few years ago, in my new home town, Tucson, to meet a congresswoman she admired. She died in a hail of bullets that day. Another of our best and brightest, cut down.

That's... how we are now. That is what we've become -- and become used to.

At the very end of the Robert Redford film Havana, Redford -- who sometimes, in a certain light, at a certain angle, reminds me of Kennedy a little bit -- strolls along on a deserted Florida beach, as a voice over says we have a revolution of our own going on here in the states.

He is referring to the Cuban one Jack Weil, the poker player Redford plays, has just fled. And feeling, perhaps, the unrest gathering steam in early '60s America.

It's the cool, gambler's gait that takes me back. He is like the America we lost the day they shot Kennedy dead. Walking with such calm confidence toward the horizon. Fearless. Absolutely fearless. Because he's been a winner for a very, very long time.

I get a lump in my throat whenever I watch that final scene because I Redford also knew as he took that walk... what was about to happen to that America.

They got us, too, that day in Dallas.

And oh, how I wish... how I wish... I could still feel anything about this country as intensely, fervently, euphorically as I did then...

Cynthia Dagnal-Myron's book, The Keka Collection, can be purchased on