'Letters to Jackie': Book Excerpt

The following in an excerpt from the book "Letters To Jackie: Condolences from a Grieving Nation," by Ellen Fitzpatrick.

On November 23, 1963, a day after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Katherine Dowd Jackson sat down in her home in rural North Carolina and took out her "letter box" -- a cardboard suitcase where she kept white-lined paper and a pen for important occasions. Mrs. Jackson had a third-grade education, but she enjoyed writing. She was moved especially at this moment to express her deeply felt sentiments. "Dear beloved one," she began her letter to Jacqueline Kennedy.

She wanted Mrs. Kennedy to know in the "sad[d]ist moment of your Life you have my great symphy." "I know you are suprized to know," Mrs. Jackson added, "I am a Negro woman." An intensely religious person, Mrs. Jackson had drawn in the past twenty-four hours on her faith to make sense of the President's death. "Th is marning God spoke to me," she confided. He had told her that the President had done "for his Country what God did for his World[.] They killed our Lord an Father. an now they have killed our Presentend an Father. We loved him but God loved him best."

As Katherine Jackson carefully crafted her message to Mrs. Kennedy, thousands of Americans across the country were writing similar letters. "What can anyone say at a time like this?" asked one correspondent. Few had any answers but many felt an urge to sort out on paper the storm of emotion unleashed by the President's assassination. "As no other First Family has done, you all have come into our homes and touched our personal lives, across the breadth of America. Your voices, your faces, your thoughts, your daily activities . . . were personalized for us," one woman reflected.

Almost a half century later, the events of November 22, 1963, remain a vivid, searing memory for millions of Americans who still recall precisely where they were when they learned of the President's death. Kennedy served as President of the United States for little more than a thousand days. Yet his brief term in office and his shocking assassination deeply touched people of all walks of life, and of every social class, economic station, political sensibility, region, religion, and race. Whether they adored, were indifferent to, or frankly disliked JFK, countless Americans shared the feeling that their own lives would never be the same after their young President died so violently.

The nation has changed profoundly in the decades since President Kennedy's death, as have the lives of all who remember those fateful days. Many of the schoolchildren who raced home on that Friday to discover grieving parents are grandparents today. The "new generation" of World War II veterans that Kennedy's election brought to power has now reached old age. The President's two younger brothers, Senator Robert F. Kennedy -- himself a victim of assassination in 1968 -- and Senator Edward M. Kennedy, are both buried near their brother in Arlington National Cemetery. Wars have been fought. The scourge of legalized segregation has been repudiated. Access to fundamental political and civil rights has widened immeasurably.

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