November 22, 1963: Fifty Years Later

Julie in 1963

Julie in 1963

Unlike most Americans who were alive on November 22, 1963, I do not remember exactly where I was when those fateful shots rang out in Dallas because I was too young.  As a three year-old living on North Third Street, I was busy anticipating the arrival of a baby brother and working on my list for Santa.  I do have three vivid memories about the assassination: the famous John-John salute, likely because he was the same age as me; my mother seeming especially sad; and a personal concern about why the news was on rather than Captain Kangaroo in the mornings.

As the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination approaches, we will pause to reflect as a nation.  It has also forced me to pause and reflect on the decade of the 1960s, the first decade of my life.  Usually, I use this column to celebrate the idyllic childhood I had in North Baltimore, surrounded by loving family and neighbors with freedom to explore our safe little town. But, the political climate of the 1960s did create a dissonant backdrop to the Mayberry-esque daily life I was experiencing.

I was born in 1960.  Here is a chronology of national events before my tenth birthday:

  • Age three:  President Kennedy assassinated
  • Age four: Congress authorizes the use of military force in southeast Asia
  • Age eight:  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinated
  • Age eight:  Senator Robert Kennedy assassinated

It must have been complicated for my parents to explain these tragic events to such a young child since they happened during a period while I still thought the Daniel Boone television show was historically accurate, that Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke was a real person, and that the Disney animal “documentaries” were unstaged.  Obviously, my immature psyche wasn’t ready to comprehend wars and assassinations.

In hindsight, I think the Vietnam War was more integrated into my daily childhood life than the assassinations that grabbed the nation’s media attention for a period but then faded away. I clearly remember my elementary school classmates who had older brothers worrying about whether they would be drafted.  And I also remember Walter Cronkite starting the CBS Evening News with the daily body count throughout the war.  Without a doubt, the 1960s were complex times to be a young child.

On the other hand, the 1960s were also a time of positive social change for our country.  Here is a different chronology of events that happened before my tenth birthday:

  • Age three:  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech
  • Age four:  The Civil Rights Act was signed into law
  • Age six: The term “women’s liberation” first appeared in print

So as I reflect back on the 1960s through a lens of fifty years, those are the movements that still influence me on a daily basis: from the mundane (the peace sticker on my bumper to the protest rock playlist on my iTunes) to the topics I read about (currently I’m engrossed by the true Native American history they didn’t teach us in history class) to the career path I have chosen (nonprofit work focused on vulnerable populations).  I feel blessed that these important social movements were a backdrop to my childhood.

And even though the 1960s, the first ten years of my life, were full of political turbulence, they also gave me an important roadmap for life when Dr. King said in his “I Have a Dream” speech: “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

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