This is an email I sent to my three children and my many nieces and nephews on the 45th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
(I have edited this, removing personal information I am not ready to share)
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Date: Sun, 23 Nov 2008 00:05:03 -0800
Subject: I want you to know before I forget
45 years ago today, I lived on the far west side of Chicago. It was fall but it was warm and the sun was bright. I was 12 years old, sitting in class, anxiously waiting for the lunch bell to ring.
Then the principal came over the school speaker and said, “our President has been shot. Please leave school quietly and go home.”
It was a Friday.
I remember my heart felt like it was coming up into my throat. I felt so small and helpless as we left school hand in hand in silence. Once outside — I ran to my mother’s work eight city blocks from school. When I burst into her work, the TV was on — everyone was hushed but crying, their arms around each other. I ran to my Mom and buried my face in her belly — she couldn’t speak. We all stared at the TV — numb. It seemed like hours passed. Then the TV announcer’s voice whispered “President Kennedy is dead — the President is gone.”
Even as I write this I cry.
You see, we had civics classes back then. We were taught WHY we lived in the greatest Nation in the world. We learned about democracy and the costs of it’s formation. So, I understood at 12 years of age the impact of the assassination.
We memorized the Declaration of Independence and The Preamble to The Constitution. We studied the Federalist Papers, our Presidents and their terms of service, we read their inaugural addresses. We memorized the Gettysburg Address and to this day I cannot recall/read it without deep awe and emotion.
We had to bring a newspaper article into class EACH DAY regarding national or world events. We knew the names of the cabinet members… we knew and we understood what they did.
But I also I learned about bigotry, fear and hate filled words — at my mother’s work, in my friends homes, in the articles we shared each day.
Many people were afraid of JFK — he was an Irish Catholic after all. And surely the Pope would run our country from Rome! I remember people saying terrible things about him and wishing him dead — I learned to be careful what you wish for …
The 1960’s were a heavy time in our nation. JFK, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X and others — murdered because they dared to SERVE — dared to call out too all Americans to live up to the promises of those beloved documents we learned of in school.
There was the Vietnam War — the draft. The Army scooped up thousands of our ghetto kids to be cannon fodder. I went to dozens of funerals during those years and the man I loved, the father of two of my children — lost himself in the jungles of Vietnam. I never knew the man he could have become.
Mark Twain said, “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” Terrible things were said and done to our service men and women — the war was not their doing — only their duty. It was a dark and terrible time.
I remember the lady who was training me to be a cashier at our local grocery store. She was reaching up to get something off a shelf and I noticed a number tattooed on her arm. She had survived the Nazi concentration camps but she hushed me to not say anything. She was afraid because the Jews in our neighborhood were being harassed as ‘nigger lovers’ because they, as an American group, were involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Out of their darkness they fought for the freedom of others.
Blacks and their supporters were beaten. I remember reading in the Chicago papers of the hanging of a father of three in the south because he wanted to register to vote — I believe that was 1965. I remember it was shortly after the Civil Rights Bill was signed into law. There were many stories like this — too many.
There were the riots — I could see and smell my city burning from my third floor porch. The National Guard slept in our high school gym and parked their tanks on our football field. There was a bomb threat on our little church when it was discovered I had asked my black friends to join me there. There was hate and misunderstanding — accusations of who was a patriot and who was not. I had friends who did not believe in God and they were called communists. We are a great nation and the racism, sexism — bigotry — is beneath us as a people. It is reprehensible to me to call into question someones patriotism because they believe differently. It was a dark and terrible time.
I had several friends who were gay … their lives were not easy and I will not share the brutal treatment they endured. One of them committed suicide … it was a dark and terrible time.
People were afraid and in their fear they turned on each other. My school became a prison because we had to be locked into our class rooms for protection. Police walked our hallways. Learning became secondary to survival.
These are things I think about on this 45th year since John F. Kennedy’s murder.
I remember my English teacher Mrs. Pols who told me not to give up on life — to keep reading and writing and believing that there was something better ‘out there.’ I remember “Coach” who volunteered at the Field House in an effort to get us off the streets. For the wonderful Jewish woman at the market who would sneak me bread and milk. For my Spanish babysitter who taught me to sing. My black ‘sisters’ taught me to dance and to follow my dream, and if one dream fades, dream another. I am grateful for my librarian — for the books she challenged me to read — the books that took me to places safe and full of hope. I am grateful to have had friends who taught me you can’t help who you love — you just love.
So in the darkness, there were people who made a difference — some larger than life and some struggling to live life.
As this day ends — I remember what was — not sadly or with regret. But with hope. Hope that the price paid by those that lived “then” will be remembered so that it does not happen again and again.
I have to believe my parents did better than theirs — that I did better than they — that you can do better than me and my generation. I have to hope and believe that those who follow you will be taught our history — our family history, our national history and our world history. And in this learning, dark and terrible times will one day be something that is a part of history and no longer lived.
After all — we live HERE — The United States of America — where all things are possible.
Brenda Lee — daughter, granddaughter and great granddaughter of those who dared to dream.
Copyright © 2016 Brenda L. Surin. All Rights Reserved.