Fifty years ago yesterday, First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy went on camera for the first time following the assassination and funeral of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, to thank the nation for the outpouring of support she and her children received. This brief film was shown around the country in movie theatres as a newsreel, and exists in two different versions – one showing Mrs. Kennedy seated with Robert and Edward Kennedy, and the other of her shown from the side. Both are worth watching, since the effect on the viewer, or at least on this viewer, changes based on the angle, the lighting, and the closeness of the camera lens.
Now the Kennedy Library in Massachusetts has announced that more of those very condolence messages which Mrs. Kennedy received will be made available to scholars and researchers. Some items in the collection are quite remarkable indeed. For example, there is a letter from the mother of one of the four little girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama only a few months before.
Whatever one thinks of the Kennedys, politically or otherwise, anyone who has experienced a great loss in their life can appreciate how these pieces of paper – cards, notes, letters, photographs – are simultaneously both hurtful and helpful. They hurt, obviously, because the reader is reminded of their loss, and can be reminded of it again and again, should they choose to hold on to the documents. Yet at the same time they can help, because they also remind the sufferer that they are not alone, whatever it is they may be going through. It is then when humanity and decency are so important, in those moments when the widow or orphan is feeling they have nothing to hold on to as they attempt to go on with their lives.
Although JFK’s assassination was over 50 years ago, the images and words which Americans associate with that event continue to have an impact on the national consciousness. This message by Mrs. Kennedy was only about a minute long, and yet when one considers what had happened less than two months earlier – and the fact that she was only 34 years old at the time – her grace was truly remarkable. It reinforced the public’s perception of her bravery as a young widow in overwhelming circumstances. Yet it also showed that she really did appreciate the prayers and encouragement she received, and that she felt a duty to acknowledge that kindness publicly. It is quite a piece of history.