Marengo County residents reflect 50 years after JFK assassination

There are some events in history that are etched in the memories of those who live through them: the attack on Pearl Harbor; 9/11; the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

As the United States marks the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death, television specials, books about Kennedy and articles and essays of his life proliferate.

The event is more quietly noted locally. No special programs or remembrances are planned to mark the date on Nov. 22 as the city gears up for Christmas on the River, and die-hard football fans are counting down the days to the Iron Bowl.

Still, people in Marengo County recall the day and, perhaps more importantly, reflect on how the country and the world changed because of the events in Dallas.

The assassination “definitely gave impetus to the civil rights movement,” said Kathryn Friday of Linden. She was in high school, and “I remember the clothes I was wearing” when the news swept through her school.

The country began to look at the way things were, “and they weren’t right,” she said. “It made us examine our thoughts and our beliefs.”

Linda Craig was a first grader at U.S. Jones Elementary when word spread among the faculty of Kennedy’s death. The students “saw all of our first grade teachers crying,” she said, but none of her classmates understood what was going on.

Kennedy, said Craig, “was a symbol of hope for some people, and I think his assassination affected some of that hope.”

He had a charisma that drew people and made them believe there was hope for a better world, including race relations, she continued. “It was a critical time for American history and the world.”

The men who meet for coffee every Wednesday afternoon at Jack’s recalled what they were doing when they heard the news, but they continued on with their jobs because they didn’t see how JFK’s death would affect them.

Henry Harrison, as the Agriculture Extension Agent for the area, was working on a soil conservation plan with a local farmer when he heard about the assassination but kept right on doing his job.

“(Lyndon) Johnson wouldn’t have been elected,” said Dick McDonald. He doesn’t think Kennedy would have pushed equal rights as much as Johnson did.

“I think Johnson profited by it more than anybody else,” said Myles Mayberry.

Kennedy “was a divisive person,” said Johnny Johnston, who was a high school senior at the time. “But I don’t remember my thinking it was going to affect me in any way.”

The only thing that might have been different is “maybe we would not have gotten as deeply involved in Viet Nam” if Kennedy had lived, said Johnston.

George Franks said he didn’t think the assassination changed the course of history at all. Kennedy, he said, was a man just like any other. “He had his faults, just like we have,” said Franks.

Kennedy was more interested in foreign affairs than he was in social issues,” said McDonald, “and I think Johnson was more interested in social issues, and that’s why I think it changed history.”

Some of those changes would have come; they were inevitable, but they would have been later he said.