Fifty years ago Friday, the President of the United States was shot and killed in Dallas and some of the schoolchildren in segregated schools throughout the South cheered the news.
Children cheered in Oxford, recalled Lloyd Gray, the editor of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, who was a fourth-grader there.
Children cheered in Columbus, said Birney Imes, the publisher of The Dispatch, who was a junior high student at Joe Cook Junior High.
It happened throughout the South.
It wasn’t as though entire classrooms rose in one voice to celebrate the tragedy. By most accounts, it was the reaction of a handful of children, who cheered, then quickly fell silent, as though they were embarrassed, perhaps even surprised, at their spontaneous reaction to the news.
But the fact remains, a president was shot and the first reaction of some children was to cheer.
That seems hard to fathom today.
Or does it?
For all of the progress that has been made, I wonder if, were the unthinkable to happen today, some of our schoolchildren might react much as those schoolchildren did on the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963.
In the years since JFK, all presidents have had their share of bitter critics. Some have been despised and over the years the respect that was normally accorded to office of the President of The United States of America has disintegrated.
But there is a level of hatred reserved for Barack Obama that hasn’t been witnessed in this country since JFK and before that, Abraham Lincoln.
Some Americans may have wanted Nixon or Reagan or Clinton or Bush driven out of office, but those who openly wished for their deaths were confined to psychotics who lived on the ragged edges of the political sphere.
But the hatred that manifested itself in the impulsive cheers of children upon first hearing of JFK’s shooting in Dallas was not confined to the deranged few, especially not in Mississippi.
It had been a little more than a year since Kennedy sent in federal troops to squash the riots that had broken out in Oxford in the immediate aftermath of James Meredith’s enrollment as the first black student at the University of Mississippi on Oct. 1, 1962.
Kennedy’s decision to send in federal troops was widely viewed a humiliation among white Mississippians, who bitterly opposed integration. It was a breach of state sovereignty and a slap in the face to the people. Well, it was a slap in the face to the white people, who were then the only people who mattered.
While Kennedy, a liberal Catholic from Massachusetts, was never popular among white Mississippians, it wasn’t until the troops descended on Oxford that he became a figure of burning resentment, even hatred.
And so it was, on that awful November day, children too young to understand why their president should be hated, hated him anyway and cheered the tragedy, if only for a fleeting instant.
Are things so different today?
There is a segment of our country that actively believes Obama not only isn’t an American, but is decidedly anti-American. Considered from a view that can only be described as a function of paranoia, every policy has an ulterior motive, every act is a willful effort to destroy the Constitution and each move, no matter how innocuous it might appear, is a progression down the slippery slope to tyranny. The government isn’t simply inept, unresponsive or misguided: The Government is the enemy and Obama is the head of that government. Past presidents have been despised for being dishonest, immoral, inept or even pawns. But they have not been perceived as the enemy. That status was once reserved for JFK and is now affixed to Obama.
Fifty years ago, children who had learned to hate a president at their parents’ knee cheered when an assassin found his mark.
I am not at all certain a similar event would not evoke a similar response today.
It was shameful in 1963.
That it could occur today, 50 years later, is all the more shameful.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]