President John F. Kennedy was assassinated fifty years ago today. JFK was the fourth U.S. president to be assassinated (the others: Abraham Lincoln, 1865, James Garfield, 1881, and William McKinley, 1901), and that moment remains a truly unique one in American history. The fame and popularity of JFK, the fact that the JFK assassination was caught on camera and shown on national television, and the conspiracy theories that sprung up within hours of JFK’s death combined to deeply traumatize the United States.
The reactions to JFK’s assassination show a unique moment in American history. Today, shocking news travels around the world in seconds, but in 1963, the news of JFK’s assassination rippled out over hours and days, and some of the reactions to his death were captured in real time.
The most famous piece of media of a reaction to the JFK assassination may be from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which had begun its afternoon concert when the news was told to the conductor. He then told the rest of the audience, and led his orchestra in an impromptu performance of Beethoven’s funeral march.
The conductor was just one of many people who had to deliver the news of the JFK assassination. Newscasters around the country were tasked with breaking the traumatic news. This Dallas newsman interrupts a program to deliver the news. This was the first the country heard of JFK’s assassination.
“Ladies and gentlemen, you’ll excuse the fact that I’m about of breath, but about ten or fifteen minutes ago, a tragic thing, by all indications at this point has happened in the city of Dallas.”
He reads the news, and is then shown interviewing Abraham Zapruder, the man who took the famous Zapruder film of Kennedy’s assassination. The news man smokes a cigarette as he talks to Zapruder, and is clearly as traumatized as everyone else.
Some of the news footage shows the ambiguity of the JFK assassination that was already present. This broadcast from New York discusses an unnamed Lee Harvey Oswald as “a man who was arrested for shooting a police officer,” (Oswald allegedly shot a policeman shortly before JFK’s death) but notes that the policeman was killed with a pistol, and JFK was shot with a high powered rifle. They then cut to a trio of “man on the street” interviews with people in Times Square in New York City. The interviewees speculate about Kennedy’s segregationist enemies. One, an armed forces soldier on leave, delivers a powerful line:
“This is the first time in my life I can honestly say I’m not proud to be an American.”
A young Geraldo Rivera showed the Zapruder footage for the first time on national television, on his show “Good Night America.” He points out that the backward movement of Kennedy’s head does not fit with the official story of a shot from above and behind Kennedy. They start to introduce the footage at the 4 minute mark.
WARNING: The footage below includes the shooting of JFK at 6:25 of the video.
The JFK assassination permanently affected the American psyche. Just as the Zapruder film has been pored over again and again, it’s worth looking at a how a nation reacted to this shocking trauma.