The funeral caisson carrying President Kennedy’s casket enters the White House driveway, Nov. 25, 1963. Honor guard horse riders, from left, are Richard Pace, James Stinton and Charles Wade. (Photo: Robert Knudsen in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)
ALBANY — Although it happened a half-century ago, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy still brings back vivid memories for those who were alive at the time.
Few events in modern history had an impact on American culture like that fateful Friday afternoon when the 35th president of the United States was gunned down while riding in an open car in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas.
When asked, many are immediately taken back to Nov. 22, 1963, remembering where they were, what they were doing and how they felt.
Albany resident Barry Taylor, who was serving in the U.S. Army, was in Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning and remembered having just finished a morning of parachute training when he heard the news.
“Our training had just ended for the day,” Taylor said. “Sirens went off all over Fort Benning and we scrambled. Once the news was out, everybody was just in shock.”
That feeling of shock is a memory many others had as well.
“I was in my fifth-period Algebra class in Ms. Sally Davis’ room in Lyons High School in Lyons, Ga.,” said Albany business owner Lynda Hammond. “The principal announced over the loudspeaker that the president had been shot. The whole class, everybody, was just shocked.”
Hammond, who was just 13 at the time and was not the avid follower of politics that she is today, said despite not truly understanding why it was an important moment, she nonetheless understood the magnitude.
“They didn’t make announcements like that, interrupting class, it just wasn’t done,” Hammond said. “That’s how we knew it was a big deal. I didn’t get the impact of that at the time. I mean the president was just a far away figure to me. But I knew it was a big deal.”
Much like Hammond, Albany native Harry Bryant said he remembers the day like it just happened. At the time, however, it simply didn’t have that much impact on a teenager like him.
“A bunch of girls got upset, crying and all,” Bryant said. “As a guy not keeping up with politics, I just thought, ‘Well, Kennedy got shot.’ It really wasn’t anything that was meaningful to me. If I had been in a family that followed politics, it probably would’ve been something. We just didn’t keep up.
“It didn’t register basically. I remember the announcement and I remember I was sitting in wood shop, but that’s about it.”
To others, not only did the news have significant impact simply from the standpoint that the president was shot, it carried a certain social impact as well.
Albany State University Event Coordinator Patricia Harris, who grew up in Chicago, Ill., and is African American, said that to her and many others in the community she was raised in, it wasn’t just that they had lost a president, but they had lost a great champion of civil rights.
“I’m 66 years old and I am a direct product of the civil rights movement,” said Harris. “I remember the four little girls in Alabama. I remember the March on Washington. I remember riding a Greyhound bus and having to sit in the back. I remember going home that afternoon and the whole neighborhood was crying. There was a lot of pain.
“(JFK) was the first president that we felt understood what we were going through. He was ours. He connected with us and we connected with him.”
Kennedy connected with many people across a variety of racial and cultural lines and the impact of his death was felt in a myriad of ways. For Albany resident Charles Myler, who was a junior at Valdosta State University at the time, the connections were that he and Kennedy were both Catholic and both were Democrats.
“I admired him,” Myler said. “He was young. He was the first Catholic president. He was a Democrat. In Georgia I was able to vote when I turned 18 in 1960. That year was the first time I ever voted. He was the first president I ever voted for.”
Myler went on to say that, like many, he remembers hearing the news for the first time very vividly.
“It was Friday,” said Myler. “I had driven home to Putney and stopped at my aunt and uncle’s place. They were outside picking up pecans and they were all distraught. They told me what happened and I was shocked. It was pretty unsettling.”
While many felt the cultural impact of Kennedy’s death, still others felt the larger ramifications of a president being killed. For Albany’s Dudley Thomas, who was serving in the Army in West Germany, the news of Kennedy’s assassination brought about concerns of possible war.
“I was stationed in Munich, Germany, and we were at what we call a recreational center and they had this news flash that the president had been shot and everybody was to report to their unit immediately,” Thomas said. “We immediately went on hard alert. That meant that we got into our battle gear, packed our duffel bags and assembled.
“We stayed on alert for two days. We were prepared to move at a moment’s notice in any direction that we were ordered to take. We’d been indoctrinated that if we ever went hard, and what we mean by hard is if we ever had a real situation, our mission was to keep the Russians from coming out of the east. We were to defend West Germany.”
Thomas went to say that the event had a huge impact on how he viewed the world and his role in it.
“It was kind of hard for me to just imagine that the president had been shot,” said Thomas. “It was a totally new experience for me in that I never imagined in a thousand years that I’d be alive to witness something like that happening. But the experience certainly prepared me for being in the military. The thought of having to do combat was realized at that moment.”
Unlike many African Americans who viewed the president’s assassination through the lens of the civil rights movement, Thomas said the event had more of an impact on him as a soldier and a patriot.
“I didn’t relate it to civil rights,” Thomas said. “I looked at the entire thing from the perspective of being a soldier, of being a patriot, because I was always patriotic in that we had to defend the country in spite of all the differences that we have. I guess that’s what made me a career soldier; I’m a true patriot in that I did not become too concerned with that.”
Memories of Kennedy’s assassination seem to have been burned into the mind of nearly every person living then — even those who were youngsters, like Albany’s Keith Fletcher. An elementary school student, Fletcher was at home sick when he heard the news.
“I remember I was playing with a toy and whatever was on the TV was interrupted and there was a news flash,” Fletcher said. “I remember mom being concerned.”
Fletcher, who was too young to understand what the assassination of a president meant to the country, still finds it interesting that he has certain memories.
Hammond, who works in the field of psychology, also finds memories of the Kennedy assassination and other significant events in the nation’s history, such as 9/11, extremely fascinating.
“The interesting thing about memory is that we don’t record it like we think we do,” Hammond said. “We think it’s one way and there’s so many things we’re not sure of, but Kennedy’s assassination is so clear in my mind though.
“That memory that I have about JFK I believe 100 percent with all my heart that it’s an accurate memory.”