FDR famously spoke after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 of "a day that will live in infamy." It was an apt and memorable phrase, one that I am sure was engraved on the hearts of all Americans who heard it.
That "day of infamy" was well before I was born and so I never heard that speech in real time, although obviously I've heard the recording of it many times. Sadly, there have been other days of infamy in our country's history since then. The one that I remember most, the one that affected me most - even more than 9/11/2001 - was 11/22/63, the day an American president was murdered in cold blood on the streets of a major American city. It has been said that that was the day America lost its innocence. In very many ways, it was the day that I lost my innocence. Things were never quite the same for me after that.
I had idolized John F. Kennedy. I was inspired by him. Even though I was too young at the time, I wanted to join the Peace Corps. I wanted to work in the State Department. I wanted to be a part of the government, to serve my country. I dreamed of the day when I would be able to do all that, when I would be able to make a difference in the world. Yes, I believed that I could make a difference in the world. Kennedy made me believe that.
On November 22, 1963 at 1:30 in the afternoon, I was in French class. Sometime after the class began, the door to the classroom burst open and one of the other teachers came and spoke to my French instructor, telling her in a voice loud enough for all of us to hear that the president had been killed in Dallas. My teacher's reaction was, "Well, I'm not a bit surprised!" She then continued the class as if nothing had happened.
I was stunned.
Later in the hallways, I was further stunned and appalled to see groups of students standing around laughing and joking about the assassination. I had never felt so alone in my life. I retired to one of the bathrooms and locked myself in a stall where I could cry alone.
That was a Friday. A couple of days later on Sunday, I went with my parents to church. I vividly recall one of the deacons getting up in church that day and talking about how the assassination had all been a part of God's plan, that God had wanted John Kennedy dead. No one contradicted him. That was the day that I began leaving the church. If that was God's plan, then I didn't want any part of such a God.
This was Mississippi in 1963. I had to get out.
I suffered from a deep depression long after that fateful day. My parents worried about me. I remember my mother telling me repeatedly that I had to "snap out of it" and get on with life. Eventually, I did, but my life and my personality had been permanently marked by the experience.
Fifty years later, the memories are somewhat faded. So many other memories have overlaid them. Most of the principal actors in the day's drama are long dead. Jacqueline Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson, even John Kennedy, Jr. - John-John - all dead. And, of course, Lee Harvey Oswald, shot down on live television by Jack Ruby. We never got to hear Oswald's story and that, in itself, is part of the tragedy. He should have been brought to trial and everything exposed to the air and sunlight of an open forum. Instead, we were robbed of that possibility and all kinds of conspiracy theories have sprung up to fill the vacuum of what will never be known.
Those of us who lived through those awful days and are old enough to clearly remember them will surely never forget and can never completely escape the consequences of November 22, 1963. We'll never know how the world might have been different but for the actions of Lee Harvey Oswald on that day.
But life goes on. The Kennedy legacy goes on. All the people that he inspired in his all-too-brief presidency continue to honor that legacy. And the Kennedy daughter, Caroline, goes on, the final survivor of that family. A staunch supporter of another groundbreaking president, Barack Obama, she now serves as ambassador to Japan. One imagines that her parents would have been very proud of her.
As for me, I did get away from Mississippi, although not as far away as I had once hoped. Today, I can view the state in a somewhat more balanced and compassionate way than when I saw it as nothing but a hate-filled closed society from which I had to escape. Even Mississippi has changed and mostly for the better in the last fifty years. I hope that I have, too.