I certainly remember, and now on the 50th anniversary of his assassination, reflecting back, I still have trouble making clear sense out of his death — and his life.
As a young student at Canton Elementary, the tragedy was more about how it affected the adults in my life than how it affected me. I really didn’t fully grasp the immense historic event that we were all watching play out.
Those were the days when a president was respected for the office he held, but here in Cherokee County, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was also a president who was revered by many, and perhaps with the clarity of hindsight, questioned by some as well.
Most of us watched the story of JFK play out on the black and white televisions in our living rooms, a story that both gripped and enthralled, and finally horrified us. In the final chapter, we were left with more questions than answers.
In 1960, Cherokee County had 23,000 people who called it home. Most had deep roots in the community and the cotton mill was the main employer, with many employed there being the second or third generation to work one of the three shifts each day.
The community had seen some economic improvement with the boom of the poultry industry in the 1950s, which brought an influx of cash to farmers spread across the community’s rural landscape.
When election time came in 1960, a record number of residents turned out to cast a vote in the race between Kennedy and Richard Nixon. With popularSoutherner Lyndon Johnson on the ballot, the Massachusetts congressman took Cherokee County.
More than 8,000 people went to the polls in Cherokee County that November, with lines of voters still trying to cast their votes when the polls closed at 7 p.m., the North Georgia Tribune reported.
The county election officials even ran out of ballots and had to rush out and get more printed, the newspaper said.
Still, the election was the closest since 1916, with Kennedy barely making it into office.
His words from his inaugural speech in 1961 still stir me, as they did the world at the time.
“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty. This much we pledge — and more.”
In the next months, there seemed to be a new vitality in the air with the advent of a young and seemingly vital president.
Women showed up at First Baptist Church wearing pill box hats in imitation of the revered first lady, Jackie Kennedy. The Camelot years had begun.
A Cherokee County native was thrust into the national spotlight when Kennedy picked David Dean Rusk as his Secretary of State for his new cabinet.
Rusk turned out to be the right man for the job, and served not only under Kennedy but also under Johnson to become the longest serving person in the position.
The newspaper reported the appointment not only was an honor to Rusk, but that it “at the same time imparted a great feeling of honor and gratitude to those of his native soil.”
Rusk would help steer Kennedy through the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, among other international incidents.
By the time the fateful day of Nov. 22, 1963, dawned, the Canton Cotton Mills were on strike as the textile unions worked to organize the mill workers and Christmas looked bleak for those who depended on the mill for their livelihood.
The story of Kennedy’s assassination in the local weekly newspaper came out after his burial and was headlined “President Kennedy … Summoned Across Death’s Frontier.”
The article chronicled the national events, but the editor’s column next to it spoke of local sentiments.
“Most of our people lived with their TV sets as never before, watching events as they unfolded … People in Canton and Cherokee County reacted to this uncalled for crime much like the rest of the world and we all still wonder just what prompted this particular person to want to kill the president.”
I suppose that is something we will never have a clear answer about.
Our community mourned, that much is clear, with special services to pay tribute to Kennedy packed at Reinhardt College and First Baptist Church of Canton.
Schools and officers were shuttered in mourning, and families stayed close to home for those days after the death of the president.
At the time I really didn’t understand the true impact, but I did know that adults were the saddest I have ever seen.
The day Kennedy died, I was sitting in the school auditorium at some sort of program when I saw teachers huddling in groups, talking in hushed tones and crying. I don’t think I had ever seen a teacher cry and it frightened me.
School was dismissed early and we all went home, as the newspaper said, to huddle in front of our televisions and watch and try to find answers to what had happened.
Now, all these years later, we still have more speculation than fact.
Fifty years have passed and we do know that the Kennedy years were just too short.
The editor went on to write in that 1963 Tribune about the impact Kennedy had.
“The underprivileged person, not only in America, but throughout the world lost a friend in the death of President Kennedy.”
Kennedy himself once said something that perhaps rings truest about what his death cost us and what his life gave us.
“A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.”
Reinhardt College President J.R. Burgess left those attending the local memorial service for Kennedy with a charge.
“In this moment of tragic grief and national shame, we have an opportunity to arise from the ashes of our great loss to new heights of devotion. Devotion not only to our country, but also to the cause of freedom and to the divine dream of ‘Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men.
“Let us pray to Almighty God and determine in our hearts this day that from this tragic event may come a greater United States of America.”