Today marks the 50th anniversary of the day this nation collectively and individually lost its innocence. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot to death in Dallas by Lee Harvey Oswald. Two days later, Oswald would be dead.
Hardly a person 55 or older cannot point to this day, 50 years ago, when they heard the news the president had been shot. Most still feel the pangs of sorrow a half century later when remembering the assassination.
For those in their 60s, Kennedy’s assassination was the opening act of momentous times: The Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, Free Love and all the associated headlines from Birmingham to Kent State to San Francisco.
Kennedy’s challenges to the country inspired young and old. When, as a new president, he spoke his most memorable words, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country,” thousands responded by joining the Peace Corps. We were a young and idealistic nation back then. We thought we could accomplish anything -- and we could.
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When Kennedy laid the challenge to go to the moon, “No nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for space. ... We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the lunar surface.
Kennedy also pulled at our moral heartstrings. “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” he said a few months before his death. “It is old as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are going to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities.” Just like the moon landing he did not live to see, the advancement of equal rights to all Americans is part of his legacy.
Was he perfect? No. Were his accomplishments more myth than reality? Depends on the historian speaking. During his short presidency was the White House a picture of Camelot? No doubt.