Looking back, 50 after his assassination, I see a young president loved by all Americans for his vision, courage and eloquence. A leader who inspired a new generation of Americans to hope for a better world.
The reality was different.
Like today’s president, John Kennedy faced a divided Congress that held up his legislative initiatives and a country divided over issues of race.
A new movie, Letters to Jackie: Remembering President Kennedy, highlights these conflicts using letters sent to the former first lady after JFK’s assassination and archival footage. The movie, which premieres Sunday, November 17 on TLC, includes 20 of the almost 2 million letters sent to Jackie Kennedy in the months following President Kennedy’s death. On the Monday after his death, 45,000 letters were delivered to the White House.
The movie highlights the accomplishments and challenges of Kennedy’s presidency.
Among the accomplishments were the establishment of the Peace Corps, the space program, curbing nuclear proliferation and his enthusiastic reception when visiting countries like France, Venezuela and Germany.
There were many challenges also like the threat of nuclear war over missiles in Cuba, but the hardest were connected to civil rights – Governor Wallace proclaiming “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” and standing in the doorway to keep the first black students out of the University of Alabama; the death of 4 young girls in a church bombing in Birmingham; the March on Washington and black leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. pushing for new legislation.
Writer and Director Bill Couturié uses the highlighted letters to tell the story. They are from people of all walks of life and ages; white, black and hispanic; Democrats and Republicans. They all were heartfelt expressions of their grief and sense of loss.
A woman from Dallas writes about the excitement of seeing Jackie and the president as they passed by her moments before the shooting.
There were poignant letters from the wife of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers and the wife of an officer who died when the submarine Thresher sank. She sent to Jackie some of the consoling words JFK had sent her after her husband died at sea.
There were also messages of hope. A letter from a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia, several college students whose lives were changed by JFK’s vision of a New Frontier, and a 13 year old with polio reminding Jackie to sing “You Gotta Have Heart” from the musical Damn Yankees to stay happy.
There were several writers who thought that the one positive thing that could come out of this tragedy would be the passage of the Civil Rights bill. One writer put it this way:
“One hundred years ago, Lincoln died that all men might be free
One hundred years later, J.F.K. died that all men might be equal.”
One letter was from an officer stationed in Berlin. He had seen JFK gave his famous speech declaring “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Now, less than five months later, he watched a somber crowd fill the square and mourn the loss of their fallen hero. As the letter is read, we see images of the crowd in Berlin and the burial of JFK in Arlington Cemetery.
The final letter, from another young man who was inspired by JFK’s admonition to “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” The letter ends with the Bible passage, used in the song “Turn, Turn, Turn”
There is a season
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven
A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep
A time to build up,a time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together
This film took me back to that weekend almost fifty years ago. I remember watching all of it – Jackie in her bloodstained clothes returning to Washington, the huge silent crowds at the Capitol to pay their respects, Oswald being shot, the funeral and burial.
As a nine year old, I remember seeing the adults who were devastated by what had happened. It was the moment when I understood that there was a whole world outside my little neighborhood that could impact me and those around me in profound ways.
If you have a chance to see this movie, I would highly recommend it, whether to relive those days when you were younger or to get a new, fresh perspective on that moment in history.
(NOTE: I received a message from the editor of the film who reminded me that the letter from the person in Berlin and the last letter were two different people, I had them as one. The post has been edited to reflect this.)