John Shearer: Remembering How Chattanooga Reacted To The John F. Kennedy Assassination

Tuesday, November 19, 2013 - by John Shearer

Fifty years ago this month, Chattanooga was developing into a modern city.

As evidence, an article by Warren Herring in the Nov. 16, 1963, Chattanooga News-Free Press pointed out that FM radio had arrived here. WDOD radio, which was the first AM radio station in Chattanooga, had installed a new FM-compatible antenna on Signal Mountain and a new console at its studios off Baylor School Road.

It also had a new station dial for FM – 96.5.

“I feel that a new phase and, in fact, a new era in radio listening is upon us,” said station manager Ernie Feagans, claiming that excitement among the public had been great.

Besides just focusing on the technological future, Chattanooga also had its collective eyes on the past, as it had some big events scheduled to observe the 100th anniversary of the Civil War battles in Chattanooga, which had taken place from Nov. 23-25, 1863.

On Sunday, Nov. 24, which was the anniversary day of the battle on Lookout Mountain, some Army Rangers were to scale the mountain in a slight re-creation. On hand were to be Massachusetts Gov. Endicott Peabody and Alabama Gov. George Wallace representing both sides.

A parade and march up Missionary Ridge by some students were also to be part of the festive celebration that Chattanooga organizers had planned for months.

Unfortunately, another sad moment would prevent Chattanoogans from getting to remember this also-dark period in America’s story.

The giant headline on the afternoon edition of the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, told it all – “Kennedy murdered by assassin in Texas.”

As Chattanoogans soon learned by reading the paper, hearing it on WDOD or other stations, or by watching television, President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed while his motorcade was traveling from Love Field in Dallas. At the time, he and wife Jackie were on the way to a speech at the city’s trade mart.

As was reported by News-Free Press political writer Julius Parker in the next day’s paper, Chattanoogans simply could not comprehend the shocking news, which resulted in a rare “Extra” edition by the afternoon paper.

“I just can’t believe it” and “This is terrible” were among the many comments he received on Friday afternoon in the area of the Volunteer Building from people going home.

Mr. Parker admitted that while Chattanoogans generally took their politics seriously and many in the then-conservative city were against the Kennedy administration, the tragic shooting had at least briefly turned the city into one body grieving together.

And were the residents ever saddened, as the sudden death of the seemingly vibrant and 46-year-old President Kennedy was quite shocking, even though presidential assassinations or assassination attempts had taken place over a good part of American history.

“Genuine sorrow was expressed in the faces of the purchasers as they crowded around harried newsboys who were hardly given time to place their ware on the racks,” Mr. Parker wrote.

This sadness went all the way up to Chattanooga Mayor Ralph Kelley, who proclaimed a day of sorrow in Chattanooga for the following Monday, as many communities in the United States were doing.

“I invite all my fellow citizens of the city of Chattanooga to join people of good will throughout the world in mourning this great loss,” he said.

The local Catholic and Episcopal churches held special masses and services Saturday morning, as did the B’nai Zion Jewish congregation. And other churches and places of worship would reflect on the somber occasion during regular Sunday services.

Baylor School had what may have been one of the first memorial services in the nation. While the cadets were gathering into formation on the top of the hill before beginning parade drills that Friday afternoon, a faculty member announced that the president had been shot.

By the time they marched down to the Rike Field area, headmaster Herbert Barks Sr., who was listening to the radio from his automobile, heard the confirmation that President Kennedy had been proclaimed dead. He went and told school commandant Dale Honeycutt, and the cadet corps then went over to the field grandstand. Dr. Barks tried to comfort them with an extemporaneous reflection, and then led them in a prayer.

The school also held a special memorial service that Monday afternoon, as did numerous other schools, churches and organizations.

While a number of college football games around the country were being canceled, the University of Chattanooga football team was off that weekend before concluding the season with its traditional Thanksgiving Day game, this year against what is now Southern Miss.

Most regular weekend activities in Chattanooga were being canceled, including unfortunately the events commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Chattanooga Civil War battles. A small program at Cravens House with local national park official Hobart Cawood as a speaker was still held, however.

It was mostly a time for reflection over the more recent tragedy rather than a period to recall the bloodshed of a century earlier.

In a Nov. 23 editorial, probably written by editor Lee Anderson, who was also chairman of the commission planning the 100th anniversary Civil War events, the News-Free Press said of the tragic Kennedy assassination, “The murder of President Kennedy was an attack upon all Americans.”

Later, in trying to find a reason for the tragic event, he wrote, “If it were in the power of decent men today to turn back the clock of time, to undo the tragedy of yesterday, to leave out the hour of murder that afflicted President Kennedy and America, it would be done.”

The Chattanooga Times editorial, perhaps written by editor Martin S. Ochs, sounded a little angry in pointing out the political climate of disharmony that had existed in recent months and may have been a contributing factor in the assassination. “If the United States does not summon its resources against the kind of senseless thinking behind it, if we are not prepared to rededicate ourselves to reason and reason’s way, then there is little hope for us,” it said.

Later, however, the editorial took on a comforting and uniting tone, adding, “We need courage for the task of unity. We need, now more than ever before, a public sufficiently informed to head off and to avert the abysses of division and discord.”

Among the other local commentary of interest was the article written by Chattanooga Times Washington correspondent Charles Bartlett. The reasons were that he had received the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 1956 and, perhaps even more important on this weekend, was also credited with introducing President and Mrs. Kennedy to each other at a dinner party at his and his wife’s house, a meeting that later led to courtship and marriage.

Mr. Bartlett, who is apparently still living at the age of 92, wrote a column after the assassination and mentioned all the now-unfulfilled accomplishments that the president had wanted the United States to achieve during his presidency.

“It is ironic that a man so dedicated to tangible deeds is destined now to be remembered less for his accomplishments than for the intangible qualities of his spirit and character,” Mr. Bartlett said.

Mr. Bartlett added that since he had known Mr. Kennedy for several years before he became president, he had not noticed any change in the president’s optimistic or upbeat personality since assuming the nation’s highest office.

Plenty of people with Chattanooga ties were also quite familiar with Lyndon Johnson, who had been sworn in as president in Dallas shortly after the assassination. He had come to Chattanooga on Oct. 1, 1960, along with Lady Bird Johnson to speak at Memorial Auditorium while campaigning for the Democratic ticket as vice president.

When then-Sen. Johnson arrived at Chattanooga’s Lovell Field, a school band ended up not playing due to a union protest. As a result, local adult musicians Stanton Palmer, a trumpeter, and Jack W. Bown Sr., a drummer, serenaded him with “The Eyes of Texas” after he arrived earlier than expected.

Sen. Johnson graciously shook hands and signed autographs at the airport before heading to Memorial Auditorium.

But over this long weekend in late November 1963, it was President Kennedy who was being remembered the most, and with heavy hearts.

By Monday, after everyone was trying to sort through the tragedy, including the additional killing of suspect Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby while Oswald was being moved in his lockup facility, numerous local memorial events were taking place.

A main one was a non-denominational, standing room only service at the Tivoli Theatre. Among the religious leaders taking part were the Rev. John Bonner Jr. of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Dr. Abraham Feinstein of Mizpah Congregation, the Rev. C.E. Jenkins of St. Paul’s AME Church, the Rev. Francis B. Pack of Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, and the Rev. Robert Barr Stewart of Second Presbyterian Church.

Rabbi Feinstein encouraged all citizens to dedicate themselves “to the principles of human dignity and peace which our president championed,” while Father Pack added some unity to the occasion by saying, “We are gathered here as Americans, not as Democrats or Republicans.”

Mr. Jenkins, meanwhile, tried to remind the audience that a higher power was still in charge of the world. “In these present times, when the civilized world is full of confusion and anxious foreboding, we have the assurance that God has worked in the past. He will work in the future.”

The city and county schools had been closed on that Monday, as had the University of Chattanooga, Zion College and Southern Missionary College. A number of private schools were also holding shorter days and special gatherings.

Students at Notre Dame High School attended a morning Requiem High Mass at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church downtown. Due to the fact that President Kennedy was the first Catholic to serve in the White House, his death was especially disheartening for the Catholic community, who had also seen the death of Pope John 23rd in 1963.

Other local churches were holding services throughout the day, including at night.

In East Ridge, three minutes of silence were observed at noon, with all the church bells in the community being rung in tribute to the late president.

Some of the local department stores draped their windows in black and were closed during the funeral service for President Kennedy.

One event that took place as scheduled was the Kiwanis Travelogue at Memorial Auditorium. By then, Chattanoogans no doubt needed an escape.

A few Chattanoogans also observed the somber state in the nation’s capital over the weekend. A group of local educators had gone to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and then to Washington as part of a trip that was originally expected to be in large part fun.

News-Free Press writer Bill Hagan was accompanying the group, but about all they found open in Washington were numerous figurative wounds on people’s hearts. The whole city had practically shut down over the weekend, although the local group was able to tour the National Gallery.

People in Chattanooga were also expressing sympathy in different ways. The local lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police was taking up a collection for the family of Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit, who had been killed on Friday while questioning a man police later claimed was Lee Harvey Oswald.

Other than mentioning Mr. Oswald’s Communist Party ties, the Chattanooga papers actually gave little hint that all kinds of conspiracy theories regarding the deaths of President Kennedy, Officer Tippit and Mr. Oswald would eventually follow.

About all anyone knew at the time was that a collective feeling of hurt had settled in over what had happened in Dallas.

And for many, the hurt would never completely go away. The innocence of America in modern times had vanished – even in Chattanooga.

Jcshearer2@comcast.net


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