I’ve added a version of this poignant Dealey Plaza picture to the JFK Facts banner because I’d never really noticed its telling detail: a dozen African-Americans cheering the arrival of President Kennedy and First Lady Jackie in Dallas. It made me realize the obvious: black people –with engrained memories of extrajudicial lynchings–experienced JFK’s murder rather differently than most whites.
For black Americans, JFK was the first of 35 U.S. presidents to endorse full civic equality for their community and families. For many white Americans (like future Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush) Kennedy’s endorsement of the Civil Rights Act was an assault on state’s rights. Not since Lincoln had a true emancipationist lived in the White House.
For blacks, memories of assassination were fresh. In 1963 white Americans in 1963 had not recently experienced the assassination of a political leader. African-Americans had just seen Medgar Evers, field secretary of the Mississippi NAACP, get gunned down in June 1963. Needless to say, Evers was not killed by a “lone nut.”
When JFK was killed the reigning ethos of white supremacy suppressed the black experience. For example, Kennedy’s murder was witnessed by a young African-American couple, whose testimony was lost to history.
According to Marilyn Sitzman and other people who saw them, the young woman was about 18 years old, her companion about 21. They were having lunch in the area known as the “grassy knoll,” when the shots rang out. They threw down their bag lunch and fled, never to be heard from again.
Who could blame them?
If you were a young black person in Dallas in 1963 and you thought (like Bill Newman and 21 police officers in the vicinity) that a gunshot had come from in front of the president’s motorcade, would you have come forward?
Would you have been eager to share your thoughts with the thoroughly racist Dallas Police Department. Or the thoroughly racist FBI? Or the thoroughly white national news media?
The answer is no. And so the experience of these witnesses was whitewashed from history. That blank page is part of the JFK story too.