A Day When Hope Died: Nov. 22, 1963

Where were you on Nov. 22, 1963?

If you are like me of a certain age, you remember exactly where you were, what you were doing, and how you felt when you heard the news 60 years ago:  John F. Kennedy, our vibrant, young 35th president had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

If like most Americans you weren’t yet born, you cannot remember or even imagine what it felt like, when in one day the Soaring Sixties, a time of ascending if cautious optimism–about progress in civil rights and other social issues, about America’s role in the world, its ambitious moon quest, its idealism reflected in the Peace Corps–instantly went into reverse.

In an instant, morning in America became mourning in America. There were indelible images, seen mostly on black and white television sets: The horse-drawn caisson, carrying the flag-draped coffin moving quietly down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol. The barely three-year old John F. Kennedy, Jr., standing at attention and saluting the coffin as it passed. The widow Jackie in black, a veil partially covering her face.

The closest anyone could recall was a similar occasion 18 years earlier, when Franklin D. Roosevelt, the presidential hero of our parents’ generation, died suddenly of a stroke. There followed a similar sad procession on Pennsylvania Avenue. I was not quite three. My parents venerated FDR, but I have no recollection. I can only imagine their reaction.

Of the days surrounding JFK’s assassination, I do not have to imagine. From my own perspective six decades later, this is what it was like for me on that day and that weekend, the first of many days in that terrible decade when once again hope died.

It was the fall of my senior year at Columbia. I had finally hit my stride academically, after struggling initially to compete academically with the better prepared preppies and New York City SP (special progress) students, who had skipped a grade and were therefore a year younger. In fact, the average age of my entering class was a mere sixteen and a half. I was a normal 18-year old graduate of a public high school where I’d been a high-ranking honor student but still woefully unprepared for the academic rigors of an Ivy League education.

It was a Friday at lunchtime when Kennedy was fatally shot while riding in the back seat of an open car in a presidential motorcade. I had just left class or the library when I heard the news. I’d recently been dumped by my college girlfriend, a Barnard sophomore, someone with whom I could no longer commiserate. But I belonged to a fraternity and lived in the house, a brownstone at 538 114th Street, so that is where I went to share my shock and grief.  What I found was itself shocking.

When I returned to my fraternity house, Phi Gamma Delta, across the street from the Columbia campus, I found my conservative brothers wearing Barry Goldwater buttons and holding an “LBJ inauguration party.”  As one of the few house liberals and a chapter officer, and the editor of our newsletter “The Broadway Fiji,” I was appalled.

That weekend, the keg party went on as usual, but without a live band, which the campus fraternity council had deemed inappropriate under the circumstances. The following day, a Sunday, I watched the television footage of alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald being gunned down by nightclub owner Jack Ruby, giving rise to lingering conspiracy theories.

CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite brought it all to us, a nation not yet siloed by social media.

A regular chapter meeting of my fraternity was scheduled for Monday night, hours after the presidential funeral, which I also watched on a black and white television in my fourth-floor rear bedroom. I said if the meeting were held, I would not attend, and bowing to their better instincts, the brothers canceled it. That was my personal protest.

I was never a student activist, but I like to think I did have a social conscience, which asserted itself, if only briefly, after yet another date that should forever live in infamy: November 22, 1963.

(The preceding is adapted from my memoir-in-progress “Years of Protest, Days of Rage: A Reporter’s Journey Through Turbulent Times.”)


  1. Wilson W Wyatt Jr on November 22, 2023 at 10:23 am

    A very important remembrance for all of us “of a certain age,” only to be repeated later by the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. I was in college when the President was assassinated. little did I know I would be working for his brother later in my life when he was also assassinated. Your words brought back the horrific feelings from both times. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone of the younger generation. Yet, how will they really know? Does history always have to repeat itself? It’s not a question.

  2. Michael B Kraft on November 22, 2023 at 1:50 pm

    Gene: Thanks for your recollections.

    When Kennedy was shot, I was in the “slot” as chief editor on the UPI/London European desk during that evening shift, London time, sand standing over the teletype from New York waiting for a reply to a query I sent about an earlier story. Then the 5 bells began ringing for the first flash. I yelled to the teletype operator to break tape on the story he was punching up and start punching in the breaking news for relay to our UPI European clients

    Because UPI’s Meriam Smith had beaten AP, I may have been the first person in Europe to know about the assassination.

    After about half an hour, the head of the Euro desk, Greg Jensen, came in and relieved me in the slot but asked me to update the canned bio of LBJ. I was the most recently arrived staffer from the US, having transferred from the Washington bureau in May, 1963. I was 26. I took over a typewriter in the back of the big newsroom and looked at the old bio of LBJ. As I recalled some of the stories I had heard over lunch or dinners from some of the UPI Senate reporters about LBK’s ego and operating style, a shiver went down my back.

    As I was finishing the update and handed it in, a lovely New Zealand girl I had been dating came into the office with some sandwiches. (I later married her a year and a half later.)

    While waiting in the tube for the train to go home that night, many people were standing there reading the extra editions of the British papers. It was very quiet. A middle age woman, who had heard my American accent while talking to a colleague, came up to express her condolences.

    It was my most memorable experience as a deskman either in Washington or London, toping even later hectic duty on the Mideast desk during the 1967 six-day war.

    Mike Kraft, Silver Spring

  3. Patrick Harden on November 22, 2023 at 4:10 pm

    I was the newly appointed UPI bureau mgr in Memphis, TN, busily punching a “WIB” when I became aware that the slotman and a couple of rim subs from the MP Press Scimitar newsroom, which our office adjoined, were crowded around our A wire.
    I asked what was up. One of the subs said, “We just want to check your wire–Our UPI wire said someone shot the president, but there’s nothing on the AP, so we just wanted to check…”
    They left the office and I phoned Connie, my wife of three weeks. Told of the news, she burst into tears. “Stop crying and go get me some quotes,” I said, “then call me back.”
    A half hour or so later, Connie phoned with quotes from neighbors in our apartment complex – and a few minutes after that, we had a local reaction story on the state wire.

  4. Marilyn Siegel on November 22, 2023 at 6:37 pm

    I was in third grade in White Plains NY. We were in recess on the playground and we were all called early to come back into school. We then had an assembly and we watched on TV what was happening. I still eerily and vividly remember that day. A pivotal moment in history and memory.

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