It was as if a beautiful dream had ended. There was a great deal of hope and a renewed trust in the federal government and the one president that baby boomers and African Americans all seemed to believe in was John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
For blacks, the early 1960s was beginning to offer some promise. The Civil Rights Movement was alive. Some believed in the ballot. There was talk of peaceful marches and protests. For others, however, militancy abounded. Some promised chaos and burning cities if things did not change. They believed in the bullet.
Liberal baby boomers hoped JFK would bring a better America.
At the center of these dynamics, the president was supposed to be the magnet that would make things right for all. Then an assassin’s bullets ended that hope.
Wisconsin State Sen. Bob Wirch, D-Somers, was a student majoring in history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that fateful Nov. 22, 1963.
“I thought it was one of the most horrible days in the world,” he recalled. “I felt I had to go home and be with my family.” He spent the rest of that day watching television with his parents as the events of the tragedy unfolded.
Wirch remembers Kennedy as a war hero who had won a Purple Heart. He was a young charismatic president who offered new hope. His election signaled a “new generation taking off. He was a great communicator and knew how to deal with the media and was a great debater.”
Kennedy represented a changing of the guard in Washington. Much like President Obama, he initially had to wrestle with Congress.
“He had all kinds of problems. It was difficult for him to deal with those problems. He had a hard time getting some of his ideas through Congress,” Wirch said.
Many baby boomers admired JFK. They wanted him to succeed. Moreover, he offered hope to the black community.
“The most important thing that came out of the ’60s was doing away with segregation,” Wirch said.
After the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his march on Washington and delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, President Kennedy heard the outcry of people who demanded passage of a civil rights bill. However, southern Democrats blocked the measure.
Ironically, it was a southern Democrat from Texas, Lyndon Johnson, who ushered in the adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Wirch also remembers how the Bay of Pigs (also known as the Cuban Missile Crisis) had the nation in a frenzy. “We didn’t know if it would be a nuclear war.” The president adeptly handled the crisis and war was averted.
“America lost a lot of innocence when he (Kennedy) was assassinated,” said Kenosha’s Third District Alderman Jan Michalski. “Although he wasn’t the first president who was ever assassinated, when it happened, it was something that we thought was unthinkable that someone would do something like that. It was so overwhelming.”
In an era when communications satellites made some real-time news coverage possible, the impact was profound. “It seemed right after, we lost that innocence,” Michalski said.
Michalski was in sixth grade when JFK was shot. He remembers the nun stopped class and then led them in prayer for the president. “It caused a great deal of anguish in our class,” he said.
The alderman attributes part of JFK’s acceptance to being the first Catholic president.
“He broke that religion barrier. He put a crack in the wall. He moved Catholics into the mainstream,” Michalski said. “He made it possible for others to realize they could become a viable candidate even if their name ended in a vowel.”
Kenosha’s 10th District Alderman Anthony Kennedy hadn’t been born when JFK was shot. However, his mother, relatives and their friends’ experience in the black community helped to supplement his education. Perhaps having the same last name made him pay extra attention to what they said.
“I was born in ’67 so all I really know about Kennedy was what I read in the history books and what my mother and her friends told me. They thought it was a definitive moment. They believed it was the end of Camelot,” the alderman said.
Kennedy’s mother, now ordained minister the Rev. Magora Kennedy, had begun to see the black community as a part of society and that there would be a new way of doing things. There was so much idealism coming out of that. That bubble, however, burst with the assassins’ bullets.
After the Eisenhower administration, blacks felt alienated from society. After JFK was elected, “My mom’s friends thought there was a new way of doing things.”
JFK’s death affected Wirch inasmuch as he felt after the assassination of Kennedy’s brother Robert, and Dr. King, that “It was horrible to see all my heroes being killed.”