JFK - the legacy of America’s Camelot half a century on

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Friday, November 22, 1963, and the final edition of the West Lancashire Evening Gazette – from an age when local news didn’t make the front page – carries a lead about a former Mansfield Town player fined £60 for 
attempting to bribe footballers to play badly.

The Duke of Edinburgh is heading back from his third and final day at Aberystwyth University College as Chancellor. A front page advert promotes half price coats at RHO Hills.

Inside there’s news of comedian Ken Dodd opening the £1m motor show at Thomas Motors and the 334 ton trawler Jacinta, under one of its youngest skippers, is about to land a record 3,700-stone catch at Fleetwood.

Life is going on as normal. The Fylde has yet to fall under the shadow of one of the greatest political calamities of all the time – the death of America’s Arthur, President John F Kennedy.

He was the man who had faced down Nikita Khrushchev in the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, and, with his younger brother Bobby, helped reshape attitudes, create a more tolerant America and ultimately played his part in paving the way for today’s presidency.

Almost exactly a year after the naval blockade of Cuba was lifted – and 50 years today – was the assassin’s bullet ensured the mere initials JFK resonate with a sense of destiny, and America’s lost Camelot.

The man may have never measured up to the myth but none of that really matters as many of us today recall a leader of the West whose vision of a world of boundless possibility has remained as eternal as the flame that burns at Kennedy’s memorial in the Arlington National Cemetery.

It’s become the definitive where were you when you heard?

Most of us were at home watching as news broke on TV or the wireless. Many Brits began a viewing vigil which would last for days. Children then, adults now, remember parents devastated at the news, the sense of globally shared grief, nations in mourning, solemnity descending upon all we saw, or did, or heard.

Few to this day are unfamiliar with what happened. It has passed into history. Kennedy had left his hotel in Fort Worth, Texas, on a wet and miserable morning, thousands of people braving the rain to catch a glimpse of their president and his glamorous wife Jackie.

He addressed business leaders in what proved to be his final speech, and then made the 30 mile journey to Dallas, the motorcade headed to the Dallas Business and Trade Mart where the President was due to speak at a lunch. Kennedy had insisted on an open topped car and a steady pace to allow all to get a good luck at the president and his wife.

It was five minutes away from its destination as it entered Dealey Plaza at 12.29pm.

It was here where the last living images of President Kennedy were captured. What happened next has been endlessly debated, it has been the subject of thousands of books and official inquiries have dissected every detail.

What we do know is that shots were fired at the motorcade. As Kennedy waved to the crowd something seemed to catch his throat. As Mrs Kennedy leant over to comfort him a split second later the fatal shot struck his head.

We know this because the assassination was captured on a home movie camera by Abraham Zapruder, a local clothes maker who had gone to the plaza to get a better view of the passing motorcade.

Many eye-witnesses thought the first gunshot was a firecracker or an exhaust backfiring.

Several witnesses reported shots coming from the Texas School Book Depository. Lee Harvey Oswald was confronted by Dallas policeman Marin Barker in the depository lunchroom less than two minutes after the last shot but identified by the building’s superintendent and allowed to leave at 12.33pm .

Kennedy’s limousine was driven at speed to Parklands Hospital. He was alive when first admitted but declared dead by medics at 1pm Dallas time, 7pm our time – 35 minutes after being shot.

By the following morning – Saturday – the Union Flag flew at half mast over public buildings and churches in Blackpool and the Fylde and the Duke of Edinburgh was flying over to attend a memorial service for Kennedy on Monday.

The Evening Gazette reported the Mayor of Blackpool, Alderman JH Smythe, had sent a telegram to the American Embassy.

“As the first Irish mayor of Blackpool and a Wexford man, I extend the deepest sympathy of the citizens of our town to Mrs Kennedy and her family for their tragic bereavement.”

Special prayers were said in churches that weekend with a special requiem at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in the heart of Blackpool attended by civic leaders. Many of those present openly wept.

JFK became the fourth US president killed in office. Acting White House press secretary Malcolm Kilduff asked Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, constitutionally now the President, to announce Kennedy’s death.

He asked for it to deferred – concerning there could be a wider conspiracy... and the conspiracy theories continue to this day.

Meanwhile, Dallas police officer JD Tippit was shot dead less than a mile from Oswald’s rooming house, witnessed by 13 people. By that evening, five witnesses had identified Oswald in police line-ups.

Shortly after 1.20pm a rifle was found on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository building. Thirteen minutes later, the official announcement of the President’s death was made by Kilduff from a nurses’ classroom at the hospital.

Minutes later Oswald was under arrest, taken to line-ups, interrogated for several hours, and charged with murder with malice over the killing of officer Tippit and, before the day was out, charged with the death of the president. Two days later the suspect was shot dead himself by nightclub owner Jack Ruby.

For many people, including a young lad who would become a politician himself, Gordon Marsden, it felt as though a “light had been extinguished.”

Mr Marsden, now Blackpool South Labour MP, and former editor of a publication Kennedy himself used to read, History Today, was nine when he sat with his parents watching the tragedy unfold.

“I remember the great outpouring of grief – and particularly the picture days later of John F Kennedy Jnr saluting his father’s coffin after the funeral mass in Washington. It was one of the saddest things I’d ever seen.”

And Kennedy was to touch Marsden’s life in other ways.

The British decided to create an enduring tribute to Kennedy in the form of a scholarship to send 10-12 Brits to America as Kennedy Scholars at Harvard.

Marsden became a Kennedy Scholar at 24 in 1978. “Hundreds applied. I was one of the lucky ones. I was doing my postgrad at London University and applied, not really expecting to get it as a close friend from my college had gone the year before and I didn’t think lightning would strike twice.

“But I got it and that year in the States changed my life in terms of the way I thought about things – and looked at my own country. Thanks to JFK, however indirectly, I learned a lot, including about Europe as I was attached to the European Studies School at a time when Jimmy Carter, an amazing peace advocate to this day, was reshaping human rights policies.

“There were parallels with Kennedy’s time for it put the Soviet Union very much on the back foot. I was there at Harvard, and had an internship with an American congresswoman from Florida who sat on the congressional committee in Washington interviewing all the people who had come out from behind the Soviet Union, the dissenters.

“It was a pivotal point of political history and fuelled my interest in and fascination with Central and Eastern Europe and the human rights movement out there and thereafter.

“I even worked as a painter and decorator on a big Chinese restaurant in Boston in order to fund a cross-country Greyhound trip in the summer.

“Kennedy made it possible. He coloured my politics too – right from my childhood.”