It was an early Friday afternoon with the crispness of fall overtaking much of the nation, the end of the work week before the Thanksgiving holiday. For those near a TV tuned to CBS, 11 minutes into the soap opera As the World Turns, a “CBS Bulletin” flashed on the screen and newsman Walter Cronkite announced: “Here is a bulletin from CBS News. In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at the president’s motorcade in downtown Dallas. The first reports say that president Kennedy has been seriously wounded by this shooting….Mrs. Kennedy jumped up and grabbed Mr. Kennedy, she called ‘Oh no!’…United Press says that the wounds to President Kennedy perhaps could be fatal.”
Shocked viewers then saw a Nescafé commercial before a second bulletin reported that a Secret Service agent had shouted from the president’s car, “He’s dead!” CBS then returned to the soap opera and another commercial before the next bulletin. Finally, at 1:30 in New York, Cronkite was at a news desk, with staffers ripping copy off a Teletype machine in the background as the news trickled in. For millions, those initial moments, their reactions and thoughts, were imprinted in their minds with a clarity that few events had before or would afterward. Most would feel profound shock, disbelief, anger and grief, and that afternoon became a generational touchstone, for many a memory so visceral and intense that it resonates still, as the vivid recollections that follow attest.
When I heard the news of President Kennedy’s death, I remember feeling like one does when walking on the beach, barefoot, on the lip of the surf, and the sand drops away from under your feet when the wave recedes. I felt less sure of myself because my president was dead.
—Maya Angelou is an author, poet, educator and a longtime civil rights activist.
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Mr. Gibson, my high school physics teacher, was demonstrating wave theory with the use of a long metallic slinky stretched across the classroom, when the principal announced over the PA system: “I’m sorry to inform you that President Kennedy has been shot.”
As much as I wanted to understand wave theory, my mind went blank. Mr. Gibson didn’t stop talking—in retrospect, I can’t imagine how he kept going—but I and the rest of my classmates didn’t hear a word he said …
John F. Kennedy wasn’t just our president. He was also the young, vital, humorous, energetic emblem of a new America—and of a future we expected to inhabit within a few years. It was inconceivable that he would be killed, because it was inconceivable that that future would so suddenly and so violently be ripped away.
—Robert B. Reich, labor secretary from 1993-97, is an economist and public policy professor at the University of California, Berkeley
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On November 22, 1963, I was a high school junior in Midland Park, N.J. I was in class when we first heard the president had been shot. School was dismissed early. I lived in the adjacent town, so I went over to my girlfriend Beth’s home. We were both in absolute shock and dismay. I remember wondering what was going to happen to the country. The big concern on our minds was, What would Russia do? Would they take advantage of the moment? It was the height of the Cold War and everything was very uncertain.
—Richard W. Schneider, Rear Admiral, U.S. Coast Guard Reserve (Ret.), is president of Norwich University.
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I was there when my father got the phone call. He hung up and walked to the middle of the room as if undecided whether to sit down at the table or wait where he was. He shifted from one foot to the other, a bitter expression on his face. He was very nervous. It was a difficult situation because we were adversaries, and what do you do when your adversary is assassinated? But he tried to show our respect for the president. He wrote his condolences and he visited the embassy and my mother wrote her condolences to Jacqueline Kennedy.
When father learned that Oswald had lived in the Soviet Union, he called the head of the KGB and asked, “What do you know about Oswald?”
—Sergei Khrushchev teaches at Brown University and is the author of several books on his father, former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
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I recall vividly that time because I had gone to a local hairdresser to have my hair shampooed and curled. The news came on over the radio. We didn’t have a TV in that establishment. We were all stunned beyond belief, those of us in that building, and the tears began to flow. The moans and the screams. And I remember someone saying, “What are we going to do?
What are we going to do?” And they were referring to Negroes, as we were called at that time, and that our friend was gone and what would happen to us after that.
And that was it. Tears and sobs and wondering why and wondering what was going to happen next. And pained because the young people in some of the high schools were shouting and cheering and laughing, and on the radio stations in Jackson (Mississippi), people were singing songs—“Dixie,” over and over and over. And that was just like rubbing salt into a wound. It is very painful to think about it even now.
—Myrlie Evers, widow of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers, is chair of the board of directors of the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute and a distinguished scholar-in-residence at Alcorn State University in Mississippi
The words above are excerpts of individual comments taken from the American History Commemorative Issue JFK: Life and Death of a President, which includes many previously unpublished recollections of that day in November from a broad spectrum of individuals including astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, former President Jimmy Carter, historian Harold Holzer, and others.