The Friday afternoon news bulletin interrupted “As the World Turns.”
On Nov. 22, 1963 — 54 years ago — CBS anchor Walter Cronkite appeared on grainy black-and-white televisions across America. He sat behind a desk with two black rotary telephones. Cronkite put on his horn-rimmed glasses. The legendary newsman cleared his throat. He looked down and read:
“From Dallas, Texas, a flash — apparently official — President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time.”
Then Cronkite took off his glasses and looked at a clock. It felt like time had stopped.
Tears welled in the eyes of one of the most trusted men in America. His words seemed to catch in his throat.
For decades to follow, people would remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news that President Kennedy had been killed.
People cried openly in the streets. Teachers interrupted classes with the somber news. Children walked home from school that afternoon to find their mothers weeping and their fathers arriving home from work visibly shaken. Families piled into living rooms to watch television, glued to the news out of Dallas.
The president, just 46 years old, had been killed at 1 p.m., Dallas time. Cronkite measured the time, as if measuring the enormity of what seemed incomprehensible. He translated it for East Coast viewers: “Two o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.”
Cronkite paused again. He would say later in an NPR interview that he didn’t want his voice to crack with emotion. He regained composure, slid his glasses back on and continued:
“Vice President Johnson has left the hospital in Dallas. We do not know to where he has proceeded, but presumably, he will take the oath of office and become the 36th president of the United States.”
The details of what happened would come quickly: An assassin’s bullets had hit Kennedy in the neck and head. He fell toward first lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Their car had sped directly to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, where a priest administered the last rites to the young president.
President Kennedy’s body was taken to Love Field airport, where it was placed on Air Force One. At 2:38 p.m., Lyndon B. Johnson took the oath of office, with Jackie standing beside him in a blood-splattered pink suit.
The country was plunged into collective shock, followed by disbelief, followed by mourning. The four days from the assassination to the funeral were so traumatic that network television canceled commercials to capture the days’ events. The images captured in those four days would become frozen in the public consciousness.
At 1:08 p.m., on Sunday, Nov. 24, 1963, Kennedy’s flag-draped coffin was carried out of the White House, accompanied by Jackie Kennedy and their two children, Caroline and John Jr. The coffin was carried by a horse-drawn caisson with an honor guard to the Capitol Rotunda, where the president lay in state. The coffin was placed on a catafalque, a decorated wooden frame, which was built to hold President Abraham Lincoln’s coffin in 1865.
For 21 hours, President Kennedy’s body lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda. More than 250,000 people lined up behind ropes, waiting to pay their respects.
Then-President Lyndon B. Johnson placed a wreath at the foot of the casket. Jacqueline Kennedy, kneeling with her daughter Caroline, kissed the coffin.
On Monday, Nov. 25, 1963, the Rotunda was closed to the public, and the caisson carrying Kennedy’s body left Capitol Hill.
Jacqueline Kennedy led the funeral procession on foot heading for the White House and then on to St. Matthews Cathedral.
More than 800,000 people lined up in the cold on Pennsylvania Ave. to watch the president’s funeral procession. According to the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Jacqueline Kennedy had requested that the cortège and ceremony be modeled after the funeral of Abraham Lincoln. Many of the onlookers cried openly as the president’s body passed by.
As on the previous day, the president’s caisson was drawn by four horses, including the riderless horse named Black Jack, a “magnificent black gelding,” according to the JFK Library, which carried an empty saddle and saber. Boots were reversed in the stirrups. “The riderless horse,” the JFK Library explained, “is one of the highest military honors bestowed upon the fallen.”
That day Black Jack, who had been known for being well behaved, broke away from the military discipline. In rare display, the horse threw his head, bucking and kicking, as if trying to break loose.
Stan Stearns, a photographer on assignment with United Press International, had an instinct for anticipating a moment. He pointed his lens at Jacqueline Kennedy as the coffin approached. Jacqueline Kennedy whispered in John-John’s ear. Then, the three-year-old boy saluted.
“The hand went up. Click — one exposure,” Stearns told the New York Times in 2007. “That was it. That was the picture.”
At 12:14 p.m., the coffin entered St. Matthew’s Cathedral. Among those present for the funeral mass: Presidents Truman and Eisenhower and more than 53 heads of state.
One hour and sixteen minutes later, the funeral procession departed the cathedral for Arlington National Cemetery.
At 3:07 p.m., at Arlington National Cemetery, the mournful notes of “Taps” were played, followed by a flag-folding ceremony. Some knelt in prayer at the burial.
Then Jacqueline Kennedy lit the eternal flame.
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