by Bernice A. King
On November 22, 1963, I was not quite 8 months old, too young to realize the enormity of what happened on that tragic day, when our nation became awash in tears and despair. But I’ve read a lot about why the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was a transformational event in American history. Indeed, many a writer has observed that America has never really recovered the buoyant optimism that characterized the Kennedy Administration.
Although I was very young, I know the tragedy affected my family, as my mother, Coretta Scott King wrote movingly about it in her book, “My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr.”:
“On November 22, 1963, Martin was upstairs, attending to some things, with the television set on in the background…Martin called to me, "Corrie, I just heard that President Kennedy has been shot— maybe killed."
Of course, I rushed up to be with Martin, and we sat there hoping and praying that John Kennedy would not die. We thought of the great national tragedy, and additionally, of the particular effect his death might have on the Black Movement. We felt that President Kennedy had been a friend of the Cause and that with him as President we could continue to move forward. We watched and prayed for him.
Then it was announced that the President was dead. Martin had been very quiet during this period. Finally he said, "This is what is going to happen to me also. I keep telling you, this is a sick society."
I was not able to say anything. I had no words to comfort my husband. I could not say, "It won't happen to you." I felt he was right. It was a painfully agonizing silence. I moved closer to him and gripped his hand in mine.
Nothing had ever affected me as deeply as President Kennedy's death, not even the news that Martin had been stabbed in Harlem. Because John Kennedy had been so kind and thoughtful to us, we felt that he was a friend to be relied upon, as well as our President. Our family shared that feeling, and when the children came home from school that afternoon, Yoki came flying up the stairs, wailing, "Mommy! Mommy!" Daddy King was going downstairs, and as he passed her, he asked, in a troubled tone, "What's the matter, Yoki?"
She did not stop to answer, but kept on running to me. She said, "Mommy, they've killed President Kennedy, and he didn't do one single thing to anybody." And then Yoki added, "Oh, Mommy, we're never going to get our freedom now."
I took her in my arms and moved into the guest bedroom with Marty and two-year-old Dexter following. They sat down, and I said, "Yolanda, I know how you feel. We all feel this way. This is a terrible tragedy, but we are going to get our freedom. God is still above and He's going to take care of us. So don't you worry, we're going to get our freedom."
That is, in truth, what I also kept saying to myself. I had always believed— and I still believe— that what we are doing has a purpose, and that our work is helping to fulfill a plan God has for this universe. I realized that John Kennedy, too, was an instrument of this Divine plan to bring about a just society and brotherhood to all men. Even so, I was deeply troubled that God had allowed him to be cut down. Finally I said to myself, "Though I don't understand why this happened, I believe in the passage from Scripture, 'All things work together for the good of them that love the Lord.' " I saw the President's death as part of God's permissive will, and I believed that John Kennedy's unearned sacrifice would be redemptive for all of us.
Months later when Martin and I assessed the situation, we realized that President Kennedy had faced a great deal of opposition in Congress to his Civil Rights Bill. But his death moved the nation in such a way that the people felt that the legislation must be passed as a tribute
to his memory. This should have been done because it was right, but also it was for the sake of the entire nation who had continued to backslide on its promise of democracy for black people.”
As I look back, after my father was assassinated on April 4, 1968, I remember how Senator and Mrs. Robert F. Kennedy came to our home in Atlanta to offer their condolences and words of comfort to our family. Just two months later, my mother would be offering her condolences to Mrs. Kennedy, when Senator Kennedy was also assassinated, further deepening the closeness between our two families.
My mother and Ethel Kennedy became good friends and worked together on a number of causes they had shared with their husbands. They together co-chaired “A Time to Remember,” to mobilize a movement for gun control. My mother also worked very closely with Senator Ted Kennedy on employment legislation, health care, civil rights bills and many other needed social and economic reforms. My brother Martin worked on the staff of Senator Kennedy, who became one of the greatest U.S. Senators in our history, as he carried forward the legacy of his beloved brothers.
In the 50 years that have come and gone since President Kennedy’s assassination, I have had the great privilege of getting to know many members of the Kennedy family, and the wonderful legacy of service and compassion JFK exemplified is very much alive in their good works down through the generations. This remarkable family has given so much to our country, and JFK’s vibrant spirit lives on in their hearts and deeds.
We mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK with sadness and wonder at what might have been if this extraordinarily charming and visionary President had lived to complete two terms. Yet, we know that his luminous example of hope and courage continues to set the standard -- as does his challenge to the youth of America to pick up the torch of freedom and lead the way to a better future for all.
Bernice A. King is chief executive officer of The King Center.
Bernice A. King