Remembering John F. Kennedy

The rumors — they were only rumors at that hour — began rippling across the campus of Pine Bluff’s Woodrow Wilson Junior High before the lunch period ended. By the time Wayne Waller’s music class began they’d gained momentum, rushing from every tongue. Mr. Waller was dismissive.

“There are a lot of stupid people in the world,” he admonished us, “and you don’t have to be one of them.” His exact words. Why do I remember them?

An hour later, coursing hallways loud with a hybrid of speculation and certainty, a blend of shock and celebration that mirrored the atmosphere elsewhere in the city, to Mrs. Curry’s class — why can’t I remember the course? — where she provided the solemn confirmation.

I can’t recall if, later that afternoon, classes were cancelled, though I think not; but why can’t I remember?

I remember our television, a black-and-white Zenith, glowed well into the night, well past our family’s usual bedtime; and that the next day we held to our plan to visit my grandparents and other kin in Center Ridge, and watched more television there; and that en route home on Sunday we stopped in Morrilton to see my mother’s sister and clan, where we watched replays of the suspect being shot.

More television on Monday, a set in every classroom, I seem to remember. By now there were pictures of the Texas mobs that, only a few weeks earlier, had roughed up our U.N. ambassador. And a couple years prior had humiliated a native son and his wife, LBJ and Lady Bird, shoving them, spitting on them.

Before the thousand conspiracy theories took root, the easiest thing to blame was Dallas, home to some of the nation’s richest reactionary nuts. The slain president’s old friend from Arkansas, from the Senate, Bill Fulbright, had warned him to avoid Dallas. Yet Texas had helped make him president in 1960 and if he wanted a second term he would need it again. So, Texas. Fort Worth in the morning, then Dallas.

I remember, too, the apprehension of so many of my elders — the Catholic thing, they talked about it a lot, ostensibly sensible people. You don’t remember? Then get on the Internet. Their own documents record how some of the most revered names in the Arkansas protestant clergy including, notably, pastors of large Arkansas Baptist churches not only disparaged the candidate’s faith — “idolatry,” etc. — but lamented even the nomination by a national political party of a man who would take his orders from Rome, from his “papist” masters. (Here, abundant irony: the ministers frequently complained that the separation of church and state, which Baptists had insisted upon since the nation’s founding, was in jeopardy. Times change, no?). But let it be remembered, too, that a storied Baptist layman, former U.S. Rep. Brooks Hays of Little Rock, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, was the candidate’s advocate and served on his White House staff. The Catholic won Arkansas, albeit barely. Was the state’s Democratic tradition at work or did voters rebel against denominational bigotry? Probably both. But times change, no? In 2012 Arkansas would, by a 24 percent margin, award its electoral votes to a Republican presidential nominee who, as had the Catholic a half-century previous, felt compelled to defend his theology.

The assassin’s target came to Arkansas — to Fort Smith in 1961, and two years later, days before his death, to Little Rock and Greers Ferry — not to defend his civil rights proposals. He was late to the movement, had struggled to avoid the issue and, like his predecessor in 1957, confronted it only when no other option remained. No, he came to dedicate a huge public works project, a dam, but in Cleburne County he became the second consecutive president to be snubbed by Gov. Orval Faubus. Nothing personal, you understand, just states’ rights.

Civil rights questions linger, states’ rights is again a rallying cry, even if government infrastructure investment is out of favor. The shots in Dallas came not from the political extremes but from a $20 mail-order rifle fired by a twisted loser. That said, the culture of extremism — the rhetoric, the paranoia — that flourished in the Dallas of 1963 has renewed itself in the United States of 2013. Cheap handbills have been replaced by talk radio and Internet websites warning of Muslim invasion and firearms confiscation.

We know much about him now that we did not know then. That the image of robust health was a lie, that he was a walking pharmacy; that the photos of family life disguised a sybaritic recklessness. We know also, however, that he kept his head when all about him were losing theirs, and the missiles were not launched. Assets and liabilities, like his country.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and the host of Arkansas Week on AETN.