One of my earliest memories growing up was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.

He was the first Catholic ever elected President. Voters had avoided Catholics in the past in part due to fears a Catholic president would take his marching orders from the Pope and be more loyal to the Vatican than to the U.S.

Of course, this was ridiculous. But the fear was real, then, and his victory in 1960 was quite dramatic given its thin margin. His youthful appearance and natural charm led to the myth of Camelot and many view JFK and his glamorous wife, Jacqueline, as American royalty.

So when he was shot to death in Dallas, an intense grief swept the nation. His death hit particularly hard among Catholics, like my family.

I was just 5 when he died but I remember everyone huddled around the television to watch his funeral. The Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline, was just a year older than me. Perhaps seeing her and young JFK Jr. in all the photos and news videos kept my attention.

It was a traumatic event and it kicked off a long decade of conflict that ripped apart the U.S. and threatened the very foundations of the country unlike anything since the Civil War.

The Kennedy assassination was quickly followed by another dramatic event still debated to this day: the shocking killing of alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald while in custody of Dallas Police. (I have a direct connection to that event … I worked at The Gazette with Bob Jackson, the photographer who captured the instant Jack Ruby shot Oswald. And I wrote about him.)

The next major news event I vividly recall was the assassination April 4, 1968, of Martin Luther King Jr. on a motel balcony in Memphis. The event triggered riots in 100 cities nationwide including in Kansas City.

Unrest and violence erupted almost immediately in KCK and KC Mo. Then, on the day of his funeral, May 9, 1968, a mass of young people, estimated at 1,000, began marching in Kansas City, Mo., heading downtown. Some marched the wrong way on Interstate 70 while others got violent, throwing rocks at buildings and homes. The march triggered four bloody days of violence.

Rocks led to “Molotov cocktails” being thrown — bottles filled with gasoline and stuffed with a rag that was set on fire so it exploded upon impact. Police in riot gear responded with tear gas, barricades and dogs. There was looting, vandalism and arson of at least 200 buildings. Eventually 700 police and 1,700 National Guard troops were called to the scene to put down the rioting.

We watched it all on our television and wondered where it would all end. I remember being quite scared.

Fire alarms sounded and rioters started attacking white people and destroying their businesses. Firefighters were overwhelmed by so many fires they couldn’t respond to them all. And many firefighters were attacked by rioters who threw bricks and bottles at them when they did respond.

Police opened fire on the mob and a state of emergency was declared by the mayor. He also issued the first emergency curfew in KC history. Before the rioting was over, police officers had killed five black men and a black teenager. Another 44 people were seriously injured in the chaos.

The episode became known as the Kansas City Holy Week Race Riots. I remember our family driving around KC Mo. after everything calmed down to see all the burned out buildings. It was many years before the scars were gone and the buildings repaired.

(Another aside: I interviewed one of the men on the balcony with King when he was shot … the Rev. Jesse Jackson. I heard him give his “Keep Hope Alive” speech in Chicago and interviewed him afterward for The AP. He impressed me as a powerful speaker.)

The nation was still reeling from King’s assassination when JFK’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated on June 5, 1968, shortly after midnight at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

RFK, as he was known, was seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, hoping to follow in his brother’s footsteps.

On the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination, RFK was speaking in Indianapolis. He was visibly shaken when he took the stage and made these remarks:

“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black. … let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”

His remarks that night are credited with calming the crowd, resulting in Indianapolis becoming the lone major city in America that did not experience mass rioting.

A few weeks later, on June 5, 1968, he won the California primary as voters embraced his candidacy and his pledge to be a champion for civil rights for blacks, to end the Vietnam War and to fight poverty across the U.S.

After giving a victory speech to campaign supporters in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel, RFK was being led out through the kitchen when Sirhan Sirhan, a 24-year-old man from Jordan, pushed through the crowd and shot Kennedy several times. Sirhan was a political extremist who was angry that Kennedy had announced his support for Israel in its conflict with Palestine.

I remember the shock, outrage and extreme grief felt once again in our home, our church community and across the country.

Meanwhile, rage over the Vietnam War continued to fester and grow with more and more frequent protests, called peace rallies, mainly at college campuses.

Students considered it a morally indefensible war due to America’s unprovoked invasion of Vietnam. It was a war that sent 58,000 Americans to their graves all due to an irrational fear of some Communist boogeyman. And it was the first war broadcast on television, making the casualties all the more vivid.

The uprising by America’s youth included a rejection of their parents’ authority and social norms. Young people indulged in counterculture activities like recreational drug experimentation, explored their sexuality and generally celebrated their nonconformity with the norms of society in ways such as growing long hair and wearing wildly colored clothes that were provocative in their style. It was the era of drugs, sex and rock’n’roll.

Music drove the movement with protest songs that became anthems for the uprising. Many of those songs still get played today on satellite radio.

The anti-war movement sparked one of the darkest days in U.S. history known as the Kent State Massacre. On May 4, 1970, eight Ohio National Guard troops opened fire on unarmed Kent State students at a protest, killing four and injuring 8 others.

The killings of U.S. citizens on U.S. soil by U.S. troops was unimaginable and it rocked the country. Students nationwide went on strike and forced hundreds of colleges and universities to close.

This image of a Kent State student over the body of a dead friend enraged people. (The photo was taken by John Paul Filo, a Kent State student photographer who was stringing for The Associated Press. It won the Pulitzer Prize and I later worked with John in the AP’s Kansas City bureau.)

Again, television brought the violence and death into our living room in KCK. And the music of the day inspired action by angry young Americans who feared being sent into the jungles of Southeast Asia only to come home in a coffin.

Life in America didn’t begin to calm down until the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, which ended the Vietnam War. But it took years to recover from all the turmoil and death. In fact, we still have many Vietnam War veterans who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from the horrors they experienced.


It’s important to note that these issues didn’t all just erupt in the ‘60s. For example, the Vietnam War began in 1955, but the U.S. didn’t send soldiers until the 1960s. And the fight for civil rights for blacks started years earlier and in the 1950s the cause was taken up by the charismatic Baptist minister, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

King launched a nonviolent campaign to end segregation, largely in the South, and met violent and deadly resistance. King spoke anywhere he could get an audience and that included in my hometown of Kansas City, Kan.

King, no doubt, had many reasons to pick Kansas as a place to recruit new followers to his cause of ending segregation.

During the Civil War, the term “Jayhawkers” became synonymous with Union troops led by abolitionists from Kansas. For years before the war, Jayhawkers fought border ruffians from pro-slavery Missouri who raided Kansas communities trying to force Kansas to vote to join the Union as a slave state.

The period was known as “Bleeding Kansas” and was a particular dark episode.

Consider, on Friday, Aug. 21, 1863, a guerrilla force of 400 “Quantrill’s Raiders” led by William Clarke Quantrill, crossed over from Missouri to sack and burn the Free-State bastion of Lawrence. Quantrill’s men killed upwards of 200 men and boys and destroyed about 185 buildings. Quantrill’s forces escaped to Cass County, Mo. The cowards.

Perhaps the last major act of violence in the Bleeding Kansas saga prior to the Civil War and Kansas’ entry into the Union in 1961 as a free state took place May 19, 1958, in Linn County, just north of Pleasanton.

That day, 30 men crossed into the Kansas Territory from Missouri and went to Trading Post, Kan., where they captured 11 unarmed Free-Staters. The prisoners were unceremoniously shot. Five died and five were severely wounded. Only one Free-Stater escaped injury. It is known as the Marais des Cygnes Massacre.

King most likely was drawn to Kansas by more recent history. Despite its free-state roots, Kansas lapsed into a segregated society. Consider this brief in the Kansas City Kansan newspaper in 1934.

This stuff went on for decades. Here’s a Kansan brief from the 1940s about my Aunt Molly.

In the 1950s, it became famous as the home to the notorious Topeka Board of Education, which sparked a class-action lawsuit in 1951 when it refused to enroll Oliver Brown’s daughter, 8-year-old Linda Brown, at her neighborhood elementary school because she was black.

The school district forced her to ride a bus to a segregated black school farther away. The Browns and twelve other local black families in similar situations filed a class-action lawsuit in U.S. federal court against the Topeka Board of Education, alleging that its segregation policy was unconstitutional.

Of course, they ultimately won when the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 declared the policy of “separate but equal” facilities for blacks was unconstitutional. And it led to forced busing of white children into historically black schools, triggering white rage nationwide.

Even the Vietnam War, as I mentioned, had its roots in the 1950s and hysteria about the spread of Communism from the Soviet Union and China (although they practiced different forms of Communism).

The protests educated me about political figures like Kennedy, his successor President Lyndon Baines Johnson (who became the subject of war protestors’ chants “Hey, Hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today? Protestors called out the chant nightly, to a drum beat, outside the White House and it haunted Johnson.), Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon, Bobby Kennedy, Rev. King and others.

I vividly recall the war protest marches in Kansas City, Mo., the draft-dodgers burning their draft cards to avoid going to Vietnam, and I recall neighbor Richard Fortune before forced into the Army and ultimately serving in a tank division in Vietnam.

It was a big deal when Richard came home on leave. I am wearing his hat in the photo with my brothers. We prayed the rosary for Richard’s safe return during his two-year enlistment. And I remember the relief we felt when he did return permanently.

The thing I remember most is that Richard had an edge to his personality that never existed before he went in the Army. He had seen some terrible stuff. But he never talked about it, at least to me. Of course, I was just 10 and not someone he would brag to or confide in.

Richard made the Vietnam War very real. It became more real on June 23, 1969, when 23-year-old Billy Lindquist died there. I didn’t know him but his family was prominent in Saint Peter’s Cathedral parish and they were neighbors a block over. I recall a car with young women driving up the street and were crying out the windows “Billy Lindquist is dead!”

It’s good to remember these events when people start talking about “the good old days” and want to “make America great again” and other nonsense.