Boomers Watched the Events Surrounding the Assassination of JFK

By now the entire country is aware that this week marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. TV reports, newspapers, magazines and Internet articles are all looking back on the historic events of November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. It is an especially poignant anniversary for those of us born in the first half of the Baby Boomer Generation, as we recall the events as they unfolded.

Mister Boomer’s connection to JFK began the year before the president was assassinated. Every year Mister B’s family would embark on a summer vacation, and every year it was a camping trip that included his cousins, aunts and uncles. In 1962, Mister B’s father wanted to “see the U.S.A.” and decided to treat the family to an educational trip to Washington, D.C.

The family toured all the sights in Washington, and stood in line with other tourists for a White House tour. John Kennedy was president, and Mister B’s mom was very excited to see the place where Jack and Jackie lived, even though she knew their private quarters were strictly off-limits. As the family waited in line, buzz circulated that Mrs. Kennedy had been known to come out on occasion to greet visitors who were waiting for the tour. This news made Mister B’s mom even more excited, but it was not to be. Mrs. Kennedy did not appear at the line, nor on the inside visit. Nonetheless the family thoroughly enjoyed the tour, in which the tour guide pointed out the changes that Mrs. Kennedy had made to the decor and furnishings. The family later heard that the Kennedys were not even in Washington on that day.

Mister Boomer visits the White House in 1962
Mister B waiting in line to visit the White House with his mother, Brother Boomer and Sister Boomer in the summer of 1962.

Just under a year and a half later, Mister B — a grade school student in the Midwest — was at school like every other boomer his age when news filtered out about the happenings in Dallas. Mister B attended a Catholic school where most of the teachers were nuns. They had a particular affection for the president since, aside from being a young, handsome man in their estimation, he was the first Catholic to be elected president. Kennedy’s womanizing was not public knowledge at the time, as the press took a gingerly approach to the president’s private affairs. So it was completely understandable to Mister B and his classmates that their teacher would start crying when another nun entered the room and, in what was more of a stage whisper that all could hear, told her the president had been shot.

It was probably less than a half an hour later when the principal got on the PA system and, sobbing, announced that Kennedy was dead. It was the afternoon when the announcement came, and we were dismissed for the day.

Mister Boomer was too young to comprehend the politics of the day or understand why someone would want to kill another human being, let alone the President of the United States. But he knew the entire country seemed to be in mourning, including his own parents.

Young boomers like Mister B watched on TV as Lee Harvey Oswald was captured as a suspect in the murder of a Dallas police officer on the same day Kennedy was killed. Oswald was subsequently shot dead by Jack Ruby two days later as he was being moved for an arraignment. It was, to young boomers, surreal imagery appearing on black & white television screens. A couple of days later we watched as President Kennedy’s flag-draped coffin was marched through Washington to his final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery. Mister B especially recalls the time in the parade as shown on TV when John-John, Kennedy’s son, saluted his father’s casket as the horse and carriage passed the Kennedy family. TV newsmen remarked on the incident and it became a story within the story. Life magazine later published a picture of the young son saluting his father as an iconic image from the historical events.

In the summer of 1963, Mister Boomer’s father decided the family would vacation at Niagara Falls. The family visited all the pertinent sights on the Canadian side, and included Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. Mister B recalls how Brother Boomer was infatuated with the life-like replica of Elizabeth Taylor, dressed as Cleopatra. A photo was taken of Brother Boomer standing alongside the wax statue since the museum was set up to allow visitors to walk among the statues. For Mister B, however, the exhibit that was forever etched into his mind was the recreation of the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald. The museum had staged the entire incident with life-size replicas of everyone on the scene, as it had been recorded in the Life magazine photo. There was Lee Harvey Oswald clutching his stomach with his handcuffed hands, with Jack Ruby still pointing his gun just three feet away. It was like walking into the famous photo, only now it was in three dimensions, and in color.

The assassination of President Kennedy was one of many historical events that occurred during the young years of the Baby Boomer Generation. There has been much speculation as to what might have been if Kennedy had lived and served a second term. One thing is for certain, however, and that is, things were never the same. Whether it was Kennedy’s election, as some suggest, or his death that ignited the cultural revolution that followed, it marked the end of boomer innocence. The times were definitely changing.

What do you recall about November 22, 1963, boomers?

Boomers Gave the Peace Sign More Than a Chance

One of the most recognizable symbols of 1960s Baby Boomers was the peace sign. It was a circle divided vertically in half, with each side having an angled division forming an inverted “v” about a third of the way up from the bottom. Many people, however — including boomers — may not know the origins of this ubiquitous symbol of our Generation.

The peace sign, as we call it, didn’t start out as a symbol for peace at all, but rather, a symbol for nuclear disarmament. After World War II, the Soviet Union set about building their own nuclear weapon, and was successful in 1949. The United Kingdom became the third country possessing nuclear weaponry in 1952, while France jumped in as the fourth country to possess nuclear capabilities in 1960 and China became the fifth country in 1964. As each country wanted their own nuclear device, in the thinking that that would act as a deterrent against another country’s aggression, each country acquired more, prompting the other countries to increase their stockpile. This rapid rise of nuclear stockpiles — especially between the U.S. and Soviet Union — lead to the Arms Race.

This world-wide activity was not universally accepted by the masses in each country, so a grass-roots protest movement began to rise to remind people of the horrors inflicted with the use of the weapons against Japan. In England, a group called the Direct Action Committee, in conjunction with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament planned a protest march in April of 1958 from London’s Trafalgar Square to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston. One member of the group, Gerald Holtom, was an artist and designer who thought that a common symbol worn by the marchers would help unify the movement. He drew the now famous symbol, based on the “n” and “d” of semaphore flag signaling, grabbing the initials from the phrase “nuclear disarmament.” In this messaging system, the sender positions two flags to indicate letters. The letter “n” is formed by holding both flags downward at an angle. The positioning for the letter “d” is one flag straight up, and the other straight down. Combine the semaphore “n” and “d” and you have the “peace” symbol. Holtom drew a circle around it to balance the design. Eric Austen took Holtom’s drawing and made ceramic badges for the group to wear. These circular buttons were composed of a white glazed background with the nuclear disarmament symbol painted in black glaze. A thin black circle surrounded the edge of the button. Holtom’s original design now resides in the Peace Museum in Bradford, England.

original peace symbol with variations
The first drawing by Gerald Holtom (as pictured by Mister B in the top left) had little flares capping the ends of each line, and a thinner circle encompassing the design. Once it was adapted in the U.S. all types of variations were born, from simple straight lines within a same-thickness circle to oval-shaped symbols made into pendants, and elaborate colorations in stickers and buttons.

So how did this nuclear disarmament symbol become the symbol of the American anti-war movement? In 1958 an American pacifist named Albert Bigelow — himself a World War II Navy captain — sailed his boat the Golden Rule in the vicinity of nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean near the Marshall Islands, with the symbol on his sail. The U.S. Coast Guard intervened and he was briefly jailed.

In 1960, a student form the University of Chicago named Philip Altbach was in England to meet with British peace groups as a delegate from the Student Peace Union (SPU). On his return to the U.S., he persuaded the SPU to adopt the symbol for their own purposes since it had not been trademarked or patented. They did so by producing buttons to sell as a fundraising effort for their cause. Between 1960 and 1964, the group sold thousands of the buttons on college campuses across the country. As TV coverage of protests rose, the symbol became synonymous with demonstrators who wore the buttons and drew the symbol on banners. It had made the transition from “nuclear disarmament” to a more widespread anti-war sentiment, which then made its way back to Europe and rest of the world.

Mister Boomer knew back then that the symbol we called a “peace sign” was actually intended for nuclear disarmament. He used to remark how the symbol looked like a missile on a launch pad. He did not know the details of the story, though, until now!

What was your connection to the peace sign, boomers? Did you buy a button, wear it on a t-shirt or around your neck as a pendant?