LISTEN: Carl Wernicke Reflects on JFK'S Assassination, "They cheered and applauded."

Nov 22, 2013

Carl Wernicke
Credit IHMC

History informs us in useful ways if we're willing to listen to it. And one of its main values lies in how it puts in perspective what we are experiencing in current events.

Hearing the reflections this week from so many people about the assassination of John F. Kennedy naturally reminded me of my own memories of the event. It also brought perspective on the bitterness of our current politics.

The rift between the Democrats and Republicans today strikes many as beyond the norm of American politics. The depth of the bitterness can seem so stark that it threatens the viability of the system itself.

But bitter antagonism is not limited to today's politics. In 1828, the campaign between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams saw Jackson reviled as an adulterer and murderer, while Jackson's supporters labeled Adams a pimp, among other niceties. And the 1804 campaign between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams was marked by revelations in newspapers supporting Adams of Jefferson's affair with one of his slaves, while Adams was accused of seeking to procure mistresses from Europe.

That's bitter politics.

Politics were bitter in the early 1960s, too. Kennedy had to overcome a bias against Catholics, and many conservatives believed he was too liberal. Raised as a Catholic myself, I was well aware of the bias against Catholics in the Deep South; in Pensacola at the time it was common to be hear the pope called the anti-Christ and Catholicism smeared as a false religion. Anti-Catholic pamphlets were handed out on downtown street corners.

On the day Kennedy was shot I was 10 years old and sitting in the cafeteria at Ferry Pass Elementary School here in Pensacola, in a music class, I think it was. The principal came on the PA system to announce that Kennedy had been shot. A few minutes later she announced that the president was dead. I was not political, and all I really knew was that my father was a Republican and had been a delegate for Nixon at the convention. But it was shocking and unsettling to hear that the president had been murdered. It was also shocking and unsettling to hear the reaction from some of my classmates: they cheered and applauded. I don't remember the teacher telling them to stop.

As a child I couldn't fathom why people would react that way to the death of their own president, and the fact that the adults in charge made nothing of it was even more unsettling. It's unlikely that any of my classmates knew anymore than I did about Kennedy, or had any informed political positions. Clearly their reactions stemmed from what they had learned at home. For them to react joyously to Kennedy's death indicated the depth of the antagonism toward JFK they heard at home.

Kennedy was killed on a Friday. The following Thursday, like many Catholic children who attend public schools, I went to Catechism, our version of Sunday school. We gathered in the church, where I learned that my classmates were not the only ones who had applauded the president's death. The head nun spoke of her shock and disgust at hearing the reports of celebrations in schoolrooms across the area, and she led us in prayer.

As I said, history gives us perspective on current events. In that, we often can find reassurance that maybe it's not as dark as it seems. But we shouldn't make the mistake of thinking that this absolves us in making the same mistakes