Assassination brought a tragic Thanksgiving


40 years ago, nation `united by calamity'

November 22, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

In the numbing, almost unbearable, grief that gripped the nation in the days following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Americans faced Thanksgiving week with heavy hearts.

Monday, a National Day of Mourning, dawned crystal clear and unseasonably cold. Thousands lined the streets of Washington early to catch a glimpse of JFK's caisson as it made its way to St. Matthew's Roman Catholic Church. Millions more across the world shared the nation's grief as they watched the tragic procession and services on television.

As the caisson bearing JFK's flag-draped casket clattered through the streets with military precision, it was accompanied by the mournful sounds of a band playing Chopin's "Death March," which seemed even louder as the somber music reverberated off nearby buildings.

And then came the final moments as a blazing, orange-colored late autumn sun hanging low on the horizon illuminated the hill below the Custis-Lee Mansion in Arlington National Cemetery. This would be the president's final resting place.

As the interment came to a heart-wrenching conclusion, the trumpeter blowing "Taps" momentarily broke. And as the final notes sounded, they seemed to float away on the back of the chilly wind.

In Baltimore on the day of the president's funeral, Roman Catholic churches held successive requiem Masses that began at 6:30 a.m. Doors at other churches where no special services were held were open for those wanting a place to pause and reflect.

At the corner of Carey and Baker streets, passers-by heard the dramatic voice of Eleanor Moore singing, "It singeth low in every heart" and "Auld Lang Syne."

Standing in the pulpit of Ames Memorial Church, the Rev. Ernest P. Clark advised his black congregation, "This was a man!"

"Since the news from Dallas, the Negroes in Baltimore had heard national Negro leaders praise Mr. Kennedy as the equal of Lincoln. The ceremony in the Ames Church seemed particularly personal," observed The Sun.

"Lest we forget, lest we forget, lest we forget," Rev. Clark said.

Downtown streets and parking lots were largely deserted. Department stores were closed and Christmas windows remained unlighted. Hotels were almost empty as public functions were canceled. Bars in the city remained closed until 3 p.m.

Banks opened for several hours and then closed after customers failed to materialize.

"I don't know why the hell we are open," a Mercantile Safe Deposit and Trust Co. teller told a Sun reporter.

A large display window in the Hutzler Brothers Howard Street department store was filled with a black-edged portrait of Kennedy and a flag at half-staff. A funeral wreath was hung in a nearby window. A billboard above a Fallsway gas station carried the message: "Our Sympathy to the President's Family/Nation."

In the lobby of the B&O Building at the corner of Baltimore and Charles streets, a 30-member male employee choir gathered and sang "The Lord's Prayer" and the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Their songbooks were covered in black.

B&O and Pennsylvania Railroad crews working in the Bay View Yards, east of the city, stopped their trains in tribute to the late president at the hour of his funeral.

The day after, schools and businesses reopened as life struggled to return to normal.

"Today the country resumes its business and Government again turns its full attention to its task. The mood is still bleak. The deep sadness that has pervaded the country remains with all of us. Nevertheless, the nation returns to its work," said an Evening Sun editorial.

"All I have I would have given gladly not to be standing here today," Lyndon B. Johnson said in a joint address before the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives on Thanksgiving Eve.

"The greatest leader of our time has been struck down by the foulest deed of our time," he continued. "Today, John Fitzgerald Kennedy lives on in the immortal words and works he has left behind. He lives on in the mind and memories of mankind. He lives on in the hearts of his countrymen."

One of LBJ's first acts as president urged that JFK's Thanksgiving proclamation, issued on Nov. 4, be read in the nation's churches as a tribute to him. In it, Kennedy called upon his countrymen to be thankful for and to emulate "the decency of purpose, steadfastness of resolve and strength of will ... courage and humility" of their forefathers.

"This year we give thanks under a shadow, in a mood more somber and searching than is customary. Yet we can be thankful still, and in doing so perhaps reach deeper into the meaning of this holiday than we bother to do in more carefree times," said a Thanksgiving Day editorial in The Sun. "Today we can be thankful for the peace, precarious though it may be, and for a nation united, not divided, by calamity."

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