50 years ago, in 1963, I was a child of 9 living in a small conservative town in Western New York State. That town, of only a few hundred people, was strictly divided by the general store and gas station into a Catholic side to the west and a Protestant side to the east. In the dead center of town was a ramshackle house in which the only African American family lived. My father was the minister of the Presbyterian Church and I was the preachers kid. My impression at the time was that my parents were the only people certainly on the east side and perhaps even on the west side of town who had voted for John F. Kennedy in 1960. In late October 1963, I remember, even as a 9 year old, the adverse reaction when I told my fellow 4th grade students that my parents had gone all the way to Amherst Massachusetts to see President Kennedy give a speech in honor of Robert Frost, one of my father’s favorite poets.
On Thanksgiving week 1963, my father had, as usual, prepared his sermon early in the week for Sunday’s holiday workshop service. Because my father kept careful notes of all his sermons over his entire career, I know that his original sermon was focused on his concern that Thanksgiving had become in effect, a way to brag about our wealth and blessings, especially as a country, and especially in the context of the cold war. Not unusually, this was not necessarily a sermon that his overly patriotic and conservative parishioners were likely to want to hear, and likely I would hear about that in school the following Monday. By Thursday of Thanksgiving week, the Order of Service had been printed and everything was ready for worship on Sunday November 24th. On November 22nd, 50 years ago, in Dallas Texas, the world changed.
The following is word for word the commentary with which my father started his church service on that Sunday morning, November 24th, 2 days after the assassination of the President. I reproduce it here in honor of my father and mother, their courage and conviction, and also of course in honor of President Kennedy himself. Ironically, in my view my father’s thoughts and concerns resonate perhaps even more today than they did in November 1963 when evoked by a great national tragedy.
On the Presidents Death
Reverend M. James Bower
Delivered in the Corfu Presbyterian Church
November 24th, 1963.
“It is both fitting and proper to depart from the regular order of service given the sad and tragic events of the last several days.
I can certainly add nothing to the vast number of eulogies being offered by all of the world’s people. I can say to you that, with millions of fellow Americans, I am deeply saddened. My wife and I were greatly impressed when a month ago we were standing less than twenty feet from our President. We were especially moved by his youthfulness, his energy, and the sincerity of his words. This was no political occasion but instead the president spoke with learned words describing the place of art and artists in the American way of life. Especially poignant were his words about the great American poet Robert Frost, whom he had come to honor. And now this man is cut off in his youth, and the light of probably the best educated mind that has ever served in the White house has been put out.
I know very well that the sentiments of the majority of people in our community are not with the Presidents party and many have been strongly critical of his programs. This is our inherent right to disagree with those in high office. Yet, I am sure that there is not one person here or in our community who does not have, somewhere in their heart a bit of respect or even admiration for such a man who had attained so much at such a young age; who had served his country in the heat of battle as well as in the Nation’s highest office, who had stood up to the single most powerful man in the world and come out seemingly in first place.
It is this man with whom many have disagreed, but yet whom we respected that we mourn today.
The sadness, the cold bloodedness of the act that removed him from our midst is of course the most tragic aspect of these events. It would be so much easier to understand if illness or some other accident had claimed his life. But the fact that one man has defied the will of 175 Million people is a tragedy of greatest import.
And yet, this, it seems to me, is the risk that freedom has to take. In many other countries of the world, this man would have been locked up, even executed long ago. His avowal of ideas contrary to our own was open and flagrant. But his right to criticize is protected by law, as is yours and mine – and it could not be taken away from him without at the same time demanding that you and I be silent.
In a democracy, such as ours, where the people’s freedom is the greatest protection and the leaders of the government has the greatest limitations, there is always the danger that people in groups or individually will abuse the very freedom that is there’s. Our system is not wrong because a tragic abuse of freedom occurs. Our system is right because of the page after page of responsible acts for every one of irresponsibility. Our system is right because the son of an immigrant family, of a minority religion, can reach the highest office in the land. Our system is right because the wound caused in our national fabric will eventually heal and only a mournful sorrow will remain. Our system is precisely right because even this despicable slayer will be treated according to the due process of the law.
It is not a time for drastic changes in our Nation’s life and habits. It is a time for steadfastness and evenness.
It is a time to pray for God’s guidance for our country and for our new president.
It is a time to ask God’s blessing and comfort upon the late president and his family.
It is a time to pray that our own lives be filled with constant responsibility for our nation and our community.
It is even a time to give thanks.
Now, I would ask that this congregation rise and that we stand for a minute with lowered heads in memory of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
And now I would ask that you pray silently for Mrs. Kennedy, her children and all the members of this bereaved family.
And finally, may I lead you in a prayer for our country and our new President.”