The dashing young president and his stylish wife are riding in the back of a convertible limousine, waving to people who’ve come to see them on a crisp November day in Dallas. The governor of Texas and his wife are seated in front of them smiling and waving. Suddenly shots ring out. Jacqueline Kennedy, her pink suit covered in blood and brain matter from her beloved husband, John F. Kennedy, frantically tries to climb out of the limo. A member of the Secret Service pushes her back inside the car. The bullets fired at the presidential motorcade hit Texas Gov. John Connally too.
Hours later, anchorman Walter Cronkite announces with tears in his eyes that President John F. Kennedy is dead. Cronkite, his voice breaking, pauses and removes his glasses.
President Kennedy’s assassination at the age of 46 on Nov. 22, 1963 changed the course of history. At 43, he was the youngest person elected to the presidency. He and his young family offered hope and promise to a generation of Americans. He fought against Communism, reluctantly believing America should stay in the Vietnam War though it wasn’t ours to win. After a near catastrophic standoff, he managed to get Soviet missiles out of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis; which some historians argue he caused. He established the Peace Corps, an organization of volunteers who work in countries around the globe to promote peace and good will. He believed America should go to the moon but he would not live to see it happen.
Born into a Massachusetts family of privilege and political power, Kennedy famously told Americans during his January 1961 inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” It was a message that resonated deeply with a generation poised for change.
When hundreds of Freedom Riders challenged segregated conditions on Greyhound and Trailways buses in the segregated South in 1961, President Kennedy was reluctant to get involved. He didn’t want to anger Southern Democrats and foreign affairs dominated his young presidency, remembered John Seigenthaler, an aide to Bobby Kennedy, the president’s younger brother and then-U.S. Attorney General.
During his campaign for the presidency in 1960, John F. Kennedy placed a strategic telephone call to Coretta Scott King, the wife of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had been arrested during a protest in Atlanta. That phone call earned the candidate an endorsement from Martin Luther King Sr. and Kennedy went on to receive 70 percent of the black vote in his victory over Richard Nixon. Some questioned Kennedy’s sincerity but he later said equal rights for African-Americans was a moral necessity.
The idealistic young president would not live to see his predecessor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, sign major Civil Rights legislation into law in 1964.
His assassination was the first of several that would take place in the 1960s, when Americans dared to believe they could change the world. The bravery and actions of President John F. Kennedy and his younger brother Bobby Kennedy, were a big part of those beliefs.