Reaction To JFK’s Death Varied Across The U.S.


This week, we are hearing a lot about the assassination of President Kennedy who died 50 years ago. We remember the nation's tears and sadness.

But what many of us have forgotten is that America was a very different place then, and not everyone cried.

Dallas was the last stop on President Kennedy's campaign swing through Texas and the last stop of his life.  On route from the airport to a luncheon, Kennedy was cut down by an assassin's bullet.

Most of the people who remember that day were school kids half a century ago.

Sue Donohue, an assistant professor at Columbus State, was an eighth grader at a local Catholic school. Teachers sent the kids to the church where they heard the sad news.

"There were definitely tears, especially when we got to the church, and that's when the priest then did tell us that the President had died,” said Donohue.

In most of the country, that was the reaction.

Another professor at Columbus State has much different memories. He was living in Jackson, Mississippi.

Douglas Gray was a sophomore at Murrah High School. He was taking a test when the announcement came that someone had fired on Kennedy's motorcade.  His teacher ordered the class to be silent, but from other rooms, this is what he heard.

"Cheering and whooping and hollering – applause, and people were clearly ecstatic,” said Douglas Gray, Columbus State Communications Department Chair.

The next period, in music class, students learned the President had died. That teacher ordered everyone to stand and sing “Dixie.”

"The whole class launched into ‘Dixie.’  I sat down, and a number of people actually sat down,” recalled Gray. "This was still a segregated high school, in the deep south. And President Kennedy was not very popular in the white community because of his stand on civil rights and desegregation.”

OSU professor Hasan Kwame Jeffries says the nation was in turmoil over the proposed Civil Rights amendment. And while many African-Americans felt it didn't go far enough, he says others felt it went too far.  

But the assassination and a push from President Lyndon Johnson moved the nation to a new path.

"Popular sentiment changed, and people sort of saw the legislation as Kennedy's legacy," said Jeffries, Ph.D., OSU Kirwin Institute for Race and Diversity.