JFK, We Hardly Knew You

The Virginian-Pilot, November 23, 1963 issue announcing the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
The Virginian-Pilot, November 23, 1963 issue announcing the assassination of John F. Kennedy. | Photo:Jesse757/Flickr/Creative Commons License

One of the most memorable songs I learned in first grade was "Abraham, Martin and John." This was 1968 and we had a record player in the classroom, something I thought was pretty luxurious. The song caught my attention right away. I had no idea who the three men were -- I knew Abraham Lincoln, but didn't make the connection -- but from the first moment I heard the sad, aching but urgent melody, there was no doubt in my 6-year-old mind that these men, whoever they were, had met a tragic end. Or they had gotten lost and really couldn't find their way back to this mutual friend, the young singer who was so plaintively asking where they had all gone. Either way, I was fascinated and for some reason I couldn't fathom yet, troubled.

The song was a misfit, a new song not about love or romance or dancing or feeling groovy or anything I usually associated with pop songs on the radio; it was too modern to feel like any of the folk songs or spirituals -- think "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" -- my teachers sometimes played in class during the designated music hour.

"Abraham, Martin and John" was very adult to me, more adult than the sonorous "Swing Low," its meaning a mystery that my teacher pointedly did not explain. This made the song vaguely forbidding, reinforced by the fact that as it played we all sat and listened and did not clap or sway or sing along, or stand up to march. Maybe because of this I heard "Abraham, Martin and John" in a way I had never heard a song before. It was not about being entertained, but like opening a letter and hearing it read aloud. I puzzled over the words yet I knew the singer was directing his sad, unanswerable question to the world, a world that included me. I was part of that "anybody here."

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Friday will be fifty years since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He was in that trio of political martyrs commemorated by the song that for me came to define the '60s as not so much a decade of triumph but of loss, an era of great beginnings and great work that pretty much all ended up unfinished business. My generation inherited that sense of unfinishedness, and it has taken its toll. Lots of people my age are still debating the lessons of the civil rights movement, or, tired of the debate, they have put it aside altogether. We are the first full benefectors of the struggles of the '60s, but have lost the details of those struggles to the hyper-individualistic decades that followed, decades in which even the word "struggle" eventually became not just passé, but profane.

JFK for us is mostly jazzy shorthand for a dramatic time in American history that's been interpreted and re-interpreted by books, movies, and television series like "Mad Men" in which we worship the look of that time -- stingy-brim hats, lacquered hair, pointed shoes, Vegas glamour -- but do not re-imagine the political cultural and emotional turbulence that was the real show.

By the time I truly understood who JFK was and why he might have been cut down -- as Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. were cut down -- it was too late. I was in high school and my history classes were hardly dwelling on the lessons of JFK. Like so many other touchstones of the '60s, including the civil rights movement and Vietnam, everything got a democratic couple of pages in the textbook (Lincoln and slavery got somewhat more) before being summed up in a quiz or review at the end of each chapter. Then we moved on.

I learned the painful lesson of American change only through direct experience -- in elementary school, appropriately enough. Several years after first hearing "Abraham, Martin and John," at the start of fifth grade, I was taken out of the neighborhood school I was attending and bussed to a predominantly white school in Westchester. It was a baptism in fire. Though I ultimately did well, I was exposed to full-fledged racism for the first time, and it hurt. I was not quite a martyr, but certainly a guinea pig.

The legacy of that experience in 1973 is eminently unfinished. More black kids came and more whites fled the schools. Westchester remains a very white neighborhood, but its campuses today are the most African-American in LAUSD. We still don't agree on what this means, or what we should do about it, or whether anything should or can be done about it anymore. What would Abraham or Martin or JFK say? What would they do? I don't know. But I won't hold my breath waiting for the movie. Or for the song on iTunes.

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