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Local residents look back on national tragedy 50 years later

On Friday, Nov. 22, 50 years ago, a man was riding down Dealey Plaza in Dallas in a motorcade with his wife by his side. At the same time, another man was preparing his  rifle. What would happen next would become a national tragedy and cement the date of Nov. 22, 1963 in the memories of U.S. citizens and in history books.

President John F. Kennedy was not the first president in American history to have been assassinated in office, but his death has become one of much speculation and reverence. This could be due the public’s ability, for the first time in history, to watch all of the events unfold live on television or because of the socially and politically tremulous times. Information was constantly being updated and broadcast with some stations never going to commercial break.

Misinformation was mixed with information causing confusion and helping lead to conspiracy theories. However, the constant access to news was a new experience for people everywhere. On the day of Kennedy’s funeral, no matter a person’s location in the world, people were allowed to mourn with the slain president’s family and the nation and watch his funeral processional. What would normally have been a private event became a time of public, national mourning.

People around the world watched as Jackie Kennedy walked with her brothers-in-law behind the casket as it moved down Pennsylvania Avenue at dirge speed. People watched and cried as John Kennedy Jr., who was only four years old, saluted his father’s casket. People were able to witness history as it was made.

The Nov. 28, 1963 edition of the Picayune Item summed up why this event was so pivotal to American society and history, “The shock and regret at President Kennedy’s untimely death and the clashing developments that followed left people in Pearl River and Hancock counties with the feeling that they were sitting in at the ringside of one of history’s great moments — particularly since it came on a weekend, when many had the time to witness the television coverage from beginning to end.”

In a eulogy Chief Justice Earl Warren said of the Kennedy assassination, “There are few events in our national life that so unite Americans, so touch the hearts of all of us, as the passing of a president of the United States. There is nothing that adds shock to our sadness than the assassination of our leader. We are saddened. We are stunned. We are perplexed. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a good president, the friend of all people of good will, a believer in the dignity and equality of all human beings, a fighter for justice and apostle for peace has been snatched from our midst by the bullet of an assassin.”

County Supervisor Anthony Hales was eight years old when Kennedy was assassinated, but he said that despite his age, he was still very aware of what was going on and the uncertainty of the time. He said the African American community was devastated by the loss of the president because “we had such hope and belief in him.”

After Kennedy’s death, Hales said he remembers every house in his community had a picture of Kennedy, next to a picture of Martin Luther King Jr.”

“It was a sad time and I don’t think that the African American community has really embraced another president like Kennedy,” Hales said.

Gylde Fitzpatrick, former Poplarville Special Municipal Separate school superintendent, said she was living in New Orleans with her husband Richard when Kennedy died. Fitzpatrick had just turned 22 years old and was home trying to put her young child down for a nap when she saw the news announce Kennedy had been shot.

“It was a frightening time because we had just been through the Bay of Pigs…It was an unsure time. We didn’t know what was going to happen,” Fitzpatrick recalls.

While the Item wrote about the religious ceremonies held in Kennedy’s honor and the closure of businesses, schools, and the Mississippi Test Operations, now known as the Stennis Space Center, for the funeral, more emphasis was placed on the political benefits for Mississippi with President Lyndon B. Johnson being sworn in as the new president.

Since Johnson had visited Pearl River County on Oct. 14, 1960, people felt confident in Johnson as a positive leader who could be beneficial to Mississippi.

The paper wrote, “People here believe that so long as Johnson is in the White House he will push the space program as actively or possibly even more so than his predecessor, who set the nation’s goal to get to the moon by 1970.”

Picayune Mayor at the time, Granville Williams, said to the paper, “President Johnson is strongly committed to the space program  and this should mean a great deal to us here in Picayune, sitting on the edge of the great testing reservation.”

The Monday after Kennedy was killed, his funeral was held and televised. At the same time in a small cemetery in Fort Worth, Oswald’s funeral was also being held. While thousands attended Kennedy’s funeral and thousands more watched from the comfort of their living room, Lee Harvey Oswald’s funeral was attend by five people and dozens of members of the media.

At Kennedy’s funeral, Warren said, “Our nation is bereaved. The whole world is poorer because of his loss. But we can all be better Americans because John Fitzgerald Kennedy has passed our way. Because he has been our chosen leader at a time in history when his character, his vision, and his quiet courage has enabled him to chart a course for us, a safe course for us through the shoals of treacherous seas that encompass the world and now that he is relieved of the almost super human burden imposed on him, may he rest in peace.”

Fitzpatrick said about the funeral that the “memory that stands out is the children, John-John and Caroline.”

She said for a young couple with children, she and her husband were very anxious.

Since there were not enough people in attendance at Oswald’s funeral, seven reporters volunteered to serve as pallbearers. Three of the reporters were Mike Cochran, an Associated Press Correspondent, Preston McGraw, a United Press International reporter, and Jerry Flemmons, a Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter.

In 1988, Cochran said in an interview with the Lufkin (Texas) Times, “Not until 10 years later did it sink in on me — we were Lee Harvey Oswald’s pallbearers.”

Flemmons said in the same article, “But when you think back on it, comparing the way it was then and the way it is now, the doggonedest thing is that not anybody from the press tried to ask the family a question before, during or afterward. You just didn’t bother people in a time of grief.”

While an editorial in the Nov. 28 edition of the Item said Kennedy was not likely to “become a martyr, worthy of the eternal flame and other paraphernalia of glory,” that is exactly what has happened. Thousands visit his grave every year at Arlington National Cemetery to pay their respects and they continue to be fascinated by him, his presidency, his death and his family.