THE ASSASSINATION OF JFK
President and Mrs. Kennedy were riding in a 1963 motorcade in Dallas when an assassin named Lee Harvey Oswald shot him in the head from an office building window.
Oswald was a 24-year-old mentally unbalanced former Marine who defected to the Soviet Union and later returned to the United States. He never stood trial for the assassination because he himself was shot by an enraged night club owner while in custody. President Kennedy was so respected and his death was so sudden that many people believed the shooting must have been a conspiracy to get rid of him.
After more than 40 years, during which hundreds of honest and intelligent people have devoted lifetimes' worth of research and scientific investigation to Kennedy's assassination, no credible proof of a conspiracy has ever surfaced. Although human nature impels people to look for a conspiracy to explain any major tragedy, sometimes the explanation is just that tragedy happens when scared or angry individuals think they can change history by killing a leader.
Although it's tempting to rely on conspiracy rumors to explain tragic events, it's up to people to make sad events meaningful by the work they do in memory of those who die. That's what Vice President Lyndon Johnson set out to do after he was sworn in as president. Johnson is discussed later in this chapter.
THE HEIGHT OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT
The fight for civil rights that started with Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott in the Eisenhower administration kept rolling with sit-in demonstrations (1960) (see Chapter 18). These efforts and more continued to challenge the segregation and discrimination that plagued America from the time of the Civil War.
Here are some key events of the Civil Rights struggle:
- Freedom Riders (1961): Freedom Riders were civil rights activists who risked a trip on interstate buses into the segregated South to test the Supreme Court decision Boynton v.Virginia (1960), which made it illegal to discriminate on transportation that crossed state lines. Near the beginning of the Kennedy administration, buses of Freedom Riders were attacked in the South and riders beaten.
- James Meredith's enrollment at the University of Mississippi: Although Kennedy couldn't get the civil rights legislation he wanted through Congress, he used his personal clout to support black rights and voter registration. When Meredith, a 29-year-old African American air force veteran, faced violent mobs when he tried to register at the then-all-white University of Mississippi, Kennedy ordered the National Guard out to protect him.
- MLK-led demonstrations n Birmingham: Martin Luther King Jr. led a series of demonstrations in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, in the spring of 1963. After King and other peacefully demonstrating citizens were beaten and thrown in jail, thousands of students left school to join the protests. With the news full of pictures of children being blasted with high-pressure hoses and attacked by police dogs, the white leaders of Birmingham decided they'd better grant blacks some rights.
- Desegregation at the University of Alabama: A few weeks after King's Birmingham demonstrations, President Kennedy had to use troops again to move Alabama Governor George Wallace, who was personally blocking the door of the University of Alabama against two black students. That evening, Kennedy went on national television to talk about civil rights, a cause he said was "as old as the Scriptures" and "as clear as the American Constitution."
- The murder of Medgar Evers: The day following Kennedy's televised speech on civil rights, civil rights worker Medgar Evers was murdered in Mississippi.
- The bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church: A few months after Medgar Evers' murder, Ku Klux Klan members bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young black girls.
- Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech: In August of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to a peaceful demonstration of 200,000 black and white Americans in Washington, D.C.: "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal."'