DALLAS – With flags fluttering at half-staff, the United States paused Friday to mourn President John F. Kennedy and a generation’s shattered dreams, cut down 50 years ago by an assassin’s bullet.
The young leader’s brutal death, a dark turning point even in an era gripped by the Cold War nuclear standoff and bloodshed in the jungles of Vietnam, shocked the world.
Five decades on the wound is still raw, with many still obsessed by the conspiracy theories surrounding his death, and others gripped by regret for the America they imagine might have been.
Across the nation, at ceremonies large and small, many took comfort in reflecting upon the words of a charismatic man whose soaring rhetoric and call to service continues to inspire.
“Today, we honor his memory and celebrate his enduring imprint on American history,” President Barack Obama declared.
The ringing of church bells filled Dealey Plaza at 12:30 p.m. as a moment of silence marked the time that the deadly shots burst forth from the sixth floor of a book depository in Dallas, Texas.
“You, Lord, have lifted us up from the horrible tragedy enacted in this place . . . the gun shot by one man that killed a president in whom many of us had set our hopes and dreams for a better America,” intoned Bishop Kevin Farrell of the Catholic Diocese of Dallas.
A steady stream of mourners visited Kennedy’s tomb in Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, where two kilted pipers from the Black Watch of the British army repeated a tribute their regiment performed at his funeral 50 years ago.
Across the Atlantic too, Kennedy was remembered.
A wreath-laying ceremony was held in the Berlin neighborhood where Kennedy gave his famed Cold War-era “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech to a rapturous crowd.
In a proclamation ordering flags be lowered at government buildings and even private homes, Obama recalled Kennedy’s leadership in the Cuban missile crisis, his speech in Berlin and his drive to advance the rights of African-Americans and women.
“Today and in the decades to come, let us carry his legacy forward,” Obama wrote Thursday.
“Let us face today’s tests by beckoning the spirit he embodied — that fearless, resilient, uniquely American character that has always driven our nation to defy the odds, write our own destiny, and make the world anew.”
Obama later led a moment of silence as he met with supporters of the Peace Corps, the humanitarian organization launched by Kennedy that endures to this day.
Cut down in his first term at the age of 46 as he was driven through Dallas in an open-top limousine on Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy’s unfulfilled promise has become a symbol of the lost nobility of politics.
Despite the many scandals that have since become attached to his name, he is seen as a president who enlisted his fellow countrymen in lofty goals — like putting a man on the moon — “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
He was the fourth U.S. president to be killed in office, but the first whose death was caught on film. News of his death flashed around the world by television, helping enshrine the new medium at the heart of the homes off awe-struck families.
The crime — and the image of blood splattered on the pink suit of his glamorous wife, Jackie — stunned the world.
Many refuse to believe the assassination could have been the act of a single man: troubled Marine Corps-veteran-turned-Soviet-defector Lee Harvey Oswald, 26, who was gunned down on live television as he was being transferred to a county jail.
Dallas, a southern city that distrusted the northern president’s Catholic faith and liberal politics, has struggled to shed its reputation as the “City of Hate.”
Carol Wilson, 68, was among the throngs of supporters who filled the streets to welcome the dashing young president and his glamorous wife.
“We loved them,” Wilson said as she described the joy she felt as the Kennedys drove past on Nov. 22, 1963.
“I hope people realize we’re not responsible,” she said at the first official memorial service the city of Dallas has held for Kennedy.
“I wish I could go back in time and change it.”