Fifty years ago, John F. Kennedy was shot while traveling in a motorcade through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, ending the 35th president's life and what many Americans believed was a new era for the country.
What happened the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, continues to be dissected by many Americans, according to recent polls. Was Lee Harvey Oswald the lone assassin, as has been officially determined? Was there a conspiracy to kill Kennedy?
While presidential assassinations have occurred periodically in America's history -- Abraham Lincoln was killed in 1865, James Garfield in 1881, and William McKinley in 1901 -- Kennedy's assassination bookended a tumultuous decade. It was a period of war and domestic unrest, with the 1968 assassinations of civil rights leader The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Kennedy's brother, U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
Four Franklin & Marshall College faculty, from the fields of American studies, history, government and public policy, were asked why they think the event continues to resonate for so many Americans. Here is what they had to say:
Associate Professor of History Van Gosse
John Kennedy's death fascinates because it has no logic. President Lincoln died as an act of retribution in the name of the defeated Confederacy. James Garfield was a political target: Anarchists killed lots of political leaders in those years, all over Europe. But Oswald? We don’t know what to make of him, with his wanderings. And the larger history of plots against Castro -- a "Murder Incorporated in the Caribbean," as Lyndon Johnson called it when he became president -- only muddies the waters.
Many people also invested in JFK as a person, the way numerous activists and intellectuals committed themselves to President Barack Obama, in both cases seeing the president as a more thoughtful, self-aware leader who might avoid imperial mistakes.
Kennedy’s unscripted speech on June 11, 1963, insisting on the urgency of a civil rights "revolution," gave substance to those hopes. And then he was dead, as so many more would be -- in Vietnam, most obviously, but also his brother and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. So President Kennedy's murder prefigures a long, drawn-out arc of tragedy, and we feel frozen watching it, knowing what is coming. Even now, that feels eerie.
Associate Professor of Government Robert Friedrich
The sociologist Howard Schuman, in a seminal 1989 article written with Jacqueline Scott titled "Generations and Collective Memories" found that the primary period in which political memories are imprinted in a person is from adolescence to early adulthood. The Kennedy assassination created, in other words, an entire "political generation" with a view of the world as a darker, more dangerous and fragile place that will stay with it for life -- and, of course, that generation was one of the biggest in American history, the post-World War II "Baby Boom."
But JFK's assassination resonates strongly even among those who did not experience it directly, the generations that have come since. One reason is that it was our first televised assassination -- in fact, the first major national trauma of the television era. While the assassination itself did not appear on live television, its immediate awful aftermath did -- Jacqueline Kennedy in her blood-stained dress, the distraught accounts of eyewitnesses in Dealey Plaza and at Parkland Hospital, the stunning murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby two days later.
And within a few days came "Life" magazine's publication of selected frames from the film by Abraham Zapruder, a spectator at the plaza that day. All these visual images live on today, from the blurry kinescopes of the live coverage, to high-resolution copies of the Zapruder film in its grisly entirety, reproduced in books and articles and played over and over in television retrospectives and documentaries, and now on the Internet.
Director of the Writing Center and Adjunct Associate Professor of American Studies Daniel Frick
For a growing number of younger Americans, the Kennedy assassination doesn't resonate. To them, JFK calls to mind only an expressway or an airport.
But for those living at the time, Kennedy's assassination was the first, and most intense, in a series of national shocks. His death appeared to trigger a cycle of murders -- Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy -- and urban violence. By the end of the decade, history seemed out of control. As Garry Wills noted, people stopped joking that "anything could happen, [as] worse could follow worse, no terminal worse in sight."
In the years since, the event became a metaphor: what novelist Don DeLillo described as "the seven seconds that broke the back of the American century." To this way of thinking, the photos of a smiling, vigorous JFK working the rope line after Air Force One's landing at Love Field evoke a better, but soon to be lost, America. Frozen here, one lives in a moment before the death and divisiveness of Vietnam and the disillusionment of Watergate. But Dealey Plaza always follows Love Field, just as these -- and all other -- evils that followed Dallas seemed, for many, to flow from JFK's death.
Professor of Public Affairs G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs and director of the Franklin and Marshall College Poll
The event resonates for several reasons. One is that it struck down the hopes and dreams of a new generation of Americans, coming of age in the wake of the irresistible tide toward civil rights and a new world order.
The second is the enduring memory of Camelot -- the grace, elegance, and star power of Kennedy and the First Family, despite the shortcomings in his personal life. He combined style and substance that has culminated into an unreachable standard for his successors.
The third is the shoddy nature of the investigation into the assassination, leading to scores of conspiracy theories, hundreds of books dealing with his killing, which also has kept many aspects of his short presidential tenure before the public.
The fourth is the debate over his actual legacy, his accomplishments -- which is always made easier after the passage of time.