In this Nov. 22, 1963 file photo, women burst into tears outside Parkland Hospital upon hearing that President John F. Kennedy died from the shooting by an assassin while riding in a motorcade in Dallas. Looking at why so many black people revered him then – and why younger generations have largely forgotten his civil rights work now – shows that even 50 years later, Kennedy holds a complicated but pivotal place in black history.
“What are we doing downtown?” my mother asked as she looked around.
“I want you to see the Sixth Floor Museum,” I answered.
From that moment, my mother did not say another word. Her eyes scanned a long line at the ticket window inside the old building formerly known as the Texas School Book Depository.
We heard the unmistakable, booming voice of Walter Cronkite announcing the presidential time of death. I saw Mother jump.
We walked through life-sized exhibits as we listened to narratives. I examined a few artifacts, like the old UPI teletype machine. Arms folded, Mother did not touch anything. She stood way back, a safe distance away.
Just as we approached the window where Lee Harvey Oswald is believed to have fired the fatal shot, I remarked on the expert preservation of the setting. Then I invited Mother to stand inside the window to take a closer look. With tears in her eyes, she took off running from the museum. My mother had seen enough.
Outside, I, who was just a baby in November 1963, apologized for bringing her to such a surreal space that so accurately matched one stored in her memory. I didn’t realize how insensitive the idea for a mother-daughter outing might seem to my parent. Her generation — millions of disenfranchised “Negro” people — not only adored this man but entrusted him with amazing faith.
Growing up in the South, it was rare to visit a black household that did not have a photo of President Kennedy somewhere. Most people hoped and prayed that he would have the courage to do something no other commander in chief had: push through Civil Rights legislation that would guarantee their children opportunities they had long been denied and equal access to the same rights, the same protection, justice, jobs and education. Or, as the founding fathers put it — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
My mother required no museum to honor and recall what was lost or what might have been, and how tragedy transformed a city and pushed a nation to move forward into a more inclusive tomorrow.
Standing in downtown Dallas, Mother asked me to understand that for her, Camelot was still fresh. It was yesterday.
Not long after that, on a different day, it was my generation’s turn to cry. Unbelievably, I found myself back inside the Sixth Floor Museum pondering curses and conundrums.
In July 1999, after John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane had gone missing and he was presumed dead, I was dispatched to interview the executive director of the Sixth Floor Museum.
As I walked through the museum, the ghosts of 1963 embraced me. Images of a little boy saluting his father’s flag-draped coffin made me smile. The squeaky wooden floor was more pronounced in such emptiness. Oswald’s Window was now a roped area — no more touching. The museum looked more voluminous. It had more exhibits since my first visit with mother.
After a long day at the museum and an even longer week that ended with a memorial to JFK, Jr., I went home and wept.
History is part of what we are, and often it shapes who we become. Each time I have emerged from the Sixth Floor Museum, I was inspired to do more, to examine my contributions to making the country better.
I may have wanted my mother to see the museum, but she truly wanted me to inherit all America had to offer.