Sept. 15, 1963 or Nov. 22, 1963? Which date stands out more in your memory?
Most Americans who were alive in 1963 would probably choose Nov. 22. Indeed, even if you weren’t alive in 1963, it would be hard not to know what happened on that day.
For the past two or three weeks, it’s been no easy task to avoid hearing about the date. I lost count of the number of television specials and news stories devoted to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Nov. 22, 1963 was, darned near unarguably, a sad day in American history. (There were those that were shamelessly ecstatic about JFK’s assassination, particularly the guy that put a sign in the window of his business that read, “Closed, due to the death of our nigger-loving president.”)
Americans who lived in 1963 can probably tell you exactly where they were when Walter Cronkite announced on CBS news that JFK had died at 2 p.m. EST.
I was in Harlem Park Junior High School in Baltimore, but I didn’t know about JFK’s assassination until at least two hours after Cronkite made his announcement.
Our unit head, a man named Dr. Lowell, had arranged for us to have a combination party/food raiser for the needy at Thanksgiving. He knew how we had been looking forward to the party for at least a month.
So, around 2 p.m. or so, we heard his voice on the intercom telling us that an ATTEMPT had been made on President Kennedy’s life. He gave no further details.
Once school ended, we had the party, but it didn’t last long. Dr. Lowell stopped the proceedings and told us that President Kennedy was, in fact, dead. He dismissed us and said the nation was going into a period of mourning.
And mourn we did, most of us anyway. JFK’s assassination was a downright bummer. I was saddened for weeks.
Saddened, but not shocked. The shock had come two months and seven days earlier, on Sept. 15, 1963.
That was the day the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., was bombed. Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley were killed. Collins, Robertson and Wesley were all 14 years old. McNair was only 11.
I was saddened by their deaths, but sadness wasn’t my only emotion. I was also shocked. And I was outraged. I went through an “I hate all white people” stage for quite a spell after Sept. 15, 1963.
JFK’s death didn’t shock me because, well, what can shock you after a church is bombed and four children are killed?
In a country where people are filled with so much hate that children can be killed after a house of worship is bombed, no one is really safe. Not even the president of the United States.
That’s what Malcolm X tried to say in December of 1963 when he gave a speech that today is known as “The End of White World Supremacy.”
During the question-and-answer period after his speech, Malcolm gave his now famous or infamous – I’ll let readers decide which – “chickens coming home to roost” comment about JFK’s death.
In his autobiography, Malcolm explained, at length, what he meant by the statement. America, he said, had allowed hatred to spread unchecked. That hatred, he said, eventually caught up with none other than the president of the United States.
And often, elected officials had no problem expressing that hatred, especially racial hatred. Read what Birmingham Mayor Arthur J. Hanes had to say about Martin Luther King Jr. after black folks rioted in that city in May of 1963.
“Martin Luther King is a revolutionary. The nigger King ought to be investigated by the attorney general. This nigger has got the blessing of the attorney general and the White House.”
Mind you, Birmingham blacks rioted AFTER the home of King’s younger brother, A.D. King, and the A.G. Gaston Motel had been bombed. Notice Hanes wanted the advocate of nonviolence, not the bombings, investigated.
It was Hanes’ incendiary rhetoric that probably led to the events of Sept. 15, 1963. His comments certainly didn’t help ease racial tensions in Birmingham one iota.
I’ve gotten over my sadness about what happened on Nov. 22, 1963. But I’m still outraged about what happened on Sept. 15 of that tumultuous year.