What It Was Really Like The Day John F. Kennedy Was Assassinated In 1963

Coming out of the conservative 1950s, the election of John Fitzgerald Kennedy was not so much a turning point in what the country would become as it was a hopeful declaration that the young senator from Massachusetts could navigate the troubling waters on the horizon. Kennedy stood in direct contrast to his predecessor, the conservative, elder former war general Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In office, President Kennedy faced the early stages of many major conflicts that would eventually explode by the middle and end of the decade: the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, and denuclearization. All these issues and more had been building during the previous decade and finally burst open in the 1960s, at which point the Kennedy Administration no longer kicked the can down the road and instead opted to face these issues head-on.

After three years, President Kennedy hoped to gain enough support to be elected to a second term. He traveled to Texas on November 22, 1963, hoping to strengthen his standing in the Lone Star State. He left in a casket. JFK's assassination was a watershed moment in United States history. Here is what it was really like the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Arriving in Fort Worth

In November 1963, Kennedy was beginning to campaign for the 1964 election. According to the National Archives, President Kennedy planned a five-city trip across two days in the Lone Star State. With the help of former Texas senator and his vice president Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy was able to win Texas in a close 1960 election. However, disarray within the Texas Democratic Party from JFK's policies prompted a trip to make sure Texas stayed blue in 1964.

President Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline "Jackie" Kennedy arrived in Fort Worth, where he delivered a speech at a breakfast at the Chamber of Commerce, as told by Visit Fort Worth. Landing in the morning to a crowd of thousands in the rain, President Kennedy gave an unplanned speech to the crowd before departing for the planned breakfast. 

Jeb Byrne, a political appointee working in the General Services Administration since Kennedy took office, was sent ahead to make the preparations for the Fort Worth breakfast. He wrote in 2000 that the White House had questioned the trip's effectiveness altogether because of the disconnect between the Kennedy Administration and Texas' Democratic Party: "The animosity between Senator Ralph W. Yarborough and the state's two other leading Democrats, Gov. John B. Connally and Vice President Johnson, was well known. But Kennedy decided to make the trip despite any misgivings he had about factionalism."

Still, the Chamber of Commerce breakfast went off without a hitch, and Kennedy spoke about the nation's future. It would be his final speech.

Arriving in Dallas

After giving his breakfast speech in Fort Worth, both the president and first lady boarded Air Force One at 11:30 a.m., as told by WBUR. The flight lasted less than 10 minutes, and the couple landed at Love Field in Dallas to swarms of cheering supporters. The rain stopped around this time, and the transparent bubble top on the limousine was removed for the 10-mile trip that would take the president through downtown Dallas, a decision that would prove to be a fatal mistake.

Upon exiting Air Force One, the Kennedys were greeted by Democratic Texas governor John Connally and his wife Nellie. The two couples would ride together in the motorcade through downtown Dallas, departing Love Field at 11:55 a.m. 

In spite of the roaring crowds that seemed to follow the Kennedys throughout Fort Worth and Dallas, there was a strong anti-Kennedy sediment in the state as well. As detailed by The University of Texas at Arlington Library, the day prior to Kennedy's arrival in Texas, anti-Kennedy flyers appeared in the city, as well as a paid right-wing advertisement in the Dallas Morning News attacking JFK. Governor Connally himself was a controversial figure in Texas and in the state's Democratic Party. According to Texas Monthly, his alliance with Lyndon Johnson during their rise in Texas politics in the previous decade had left a bad taste in many Democrats' mouths. Still, no one expected what would happen about a half an hour later.

Lee Harvey Oswald's morning

The morning of November 22, 1963, was just like any other for Lee Harvey Oswald. At least, common in comparison to the past few years of his life. According to Britannica, in the first three months of the year, Oswald bought two guns, a .38 revolver and a rifle with a telescopic sight. On April 10, Oswald attempted to assassinate a far-right former army general, Edwin A. Walker. Later that month, Oswald moved to New Orleans with a friend to voice their support of Fidel Castro, Cuba's communist leader, and attempt to obtain a visa to move to the island nation.

Oswald had tried to become a citizen of the USSR shortly after leaving the U.S. Marines in the autumn of 1959. During his two and a half years in the Soviet Union, Oswald married a woman named Marina Nikolayevna Prusakova and had a daughter named June Lee before returning to the U.S. in June 1962. Oswald retained a desire to return to the Soviet Union, though this would fail as well. According to the Warren Commission (via the National Archives), Oswald obtained a job at the Texas School Book Depository as an "order filler" in October 1963. He primarily worked on the first and sixth floors of the building. On November 22, Oswald carpooled to work with a neighbor, Buell Wesley Frazier. He placed a large brown bag in the backseat of Frazier's car, telling Frazier they were curtain rods.

The shots are fired

A bit after noon on November 22, 1963, the U.S. and world would change forever. As detailed by The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, around 150,000 people stood along 10 miles between Love Field and their destination at the Dallas Trade Mart to see the first lady and President Kennedy. In the car with them were Governor John Connally and his wife, Nellie.

The first couple made their way onto Main Street at 12:21 p.m. According to History, at 12:30 p.m., as the motorcade passed by the Texas School Book Depository, three shots were fired from a sixth-floor window. Two of the three shots hit both President Kennedy and Governor Connally. As the motorcade sped away from the scene, JFK crumpled against Jackie Kennedy.

In an interview years later, U.S. Secret Service agent Clint Hill discussed the events. He said that President Kennedy had requested that the Secret Service would not surround the vehicle, as he did not want there to be any separation between him and the people. So as a precaution, the driver drove away from the right side of the street, where President Kennedy was seated. Because of this, Hill was more attentive to first lady Jackie Kennedy, as she was closer to the crowd, which presented the more realistic threat as the large number of supporters filled the sidewalks and moved onto the street.

The immediate reaction

As the motorcade desperately rode off to nearby Parkland Memorial Hospital to save both President Kennedy and Governor Connally, Lee Harvey Oswald quickly began to make his way out of the Texas School Book Depository, but he was immediately stopped by two officers. As told by The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, the officers, Merriam Baker and Roy Truly, recognized Oswald as an employee and released right off, not suspecting he was the triggerman.

On the ground, witnesses who were once jubilantly celebrating their president were now left in a state of horror, confusion, and anxiety. James T. Tague, who was standing on the triple underpass, spoke about the day to ABC News. "I wondered what had just happened and a man in a suit who turned out to be a deputy sheriff in plain clothes ran up and asked what had happened," he recalled. "Across the street people were sobbing, 'His head exploded.' The policeman said 'Whose head?' It was the president's."

Another witness even closer to JFK was the second lady, Lady Bird Johnson, who was riding in a car behind the president. In an audio diary from the National Archives, Lady Bird had this to say about her immediate reaction to the gunshots: "There had been such a gala air that I thought it must be firecrackers or some sort of celebration. Then in the lead car, the Secret Service men were suddenly down. I heard over the radio system, 'Let's get out of here.'"

The race to save Kennedy and find Oswald

As detailed by WBUR, at 12:45 p.m., Dan Rather of CBS called Parkland Memorial Hospital and was told by a doctor he believed that Kennedy was dead. According to The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, at 12:58 p.m., Father Oscar Huber arrived at Parkland Memorial Hospital to give JFK his last rites. Two minutes after the priest's arrival, at the time President Kennedy was supposed to give a speech at the Dallas Trade Mart, he was pronounced dead. Between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m., the country received the earliest reports that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas 

Meanwhile, Lee Harvey Oswald attempted to evade law enforcement officers who'd mobilized to find the shooter of the president and governor. Oswald had left the rifle on the sixth floor and returned home to obtain his pistol. Between 1:12 p.m. and 1:22 p.m., Oswald's rifle and the empty round shells were discovered on the sixth floor of the Book Depository, and Oswald fatally shot Dallas officer J.D. Tippit. While the press continued to hound the Parkland staff about news of Kennedy's health and people in his administration learned about their boss' death, Oswald would sneak into Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff, where he would be arrested at 1:50 p.m.

LBJ After Kennedy's Death

In spite of the chaos and tragedy of the early afternoon, Vice President Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as president of the United States 99 minutes after the pronouncement of Kennedy's death, UPI reports. With him were the newly widowed Jacqueline Kennedy and the new first lady, Lady Bird Johnson.

Lady Bird recalled the car ride to the hospital immediately following the shooting (via the National Archives): "[Secret Service agent] Rufus Youngblood vaulted over the front seat on top of Lyndon, threw him to the floor and said, 'Get Down.' Senator Yarborough and I ducked our heads. The car accelerated terrifically fast ... We pulled up to a building. I looked up and saw it said 'Hospital.'" 

She and the other passengers were moved into a room protected by the Secret Service. Despite the confusion of the situation, Lady Bird recalled her husband remaining calm and asking her to check on Jackie Kennedy and Nellie Connally, who had been a family friend since the late 1930s.

As soon as Johnson learned of Kennedy's death, he left the hospital and made his way to Air Force One, no longer feeling safe in the city. Despite being made commander-in-chief as soon as Kennedy died, Johnson decided to take the oath of office on Air Force One with Jackie and Lady Bird by his side to show the nation a sense of cohesion and unity, according to CBC News.

Local news announces that Kennedy has been shot

In the age of social media, news of an assassination attempt on the POTUS would be known in seconds. That being said, the shooting of John F. Kennedy was reported throughout Texas and the rest of the nation within minutes.

Locally, there was no bigger story than President Kennedy arriving and speaking in Dallas, so a number of reporters were assigned to cover JFK. According to ABC News, one of those reporters was KLIF's Gary DeLaune. The radio anchor was supposed to cover Kennedy's speech at the Dallas Trade Mart. He recalled the moment he learned about the shooting: "I had finished my morning runs on the news side and did the sports and was in the studio. At about 12:36, I received an anonymous phone call: 'What did I know about shots fired and Kennedy and Connally hit?'"

Once it was confirmed with the Dallas police that bullets had been fired and hit his president and governor, KLIF broke the news. As local news began to report on the story within the state, national news outlets picked relayed it for the nation to hear.

National news announcements of Kennedy's death

According to WBUR, ten minutes after the shooting occurred, CBS' Walter Cronkite gave the first national bulletin that the president had been shot. Just five minutes later, Dan Rather got the news that President Kennedy was believed to be dead from a doctor in Parkland Memorial Hospital. Still, it would be just under an hour until this would be confirmed and an announcement about Kennedy's death made. In the almost hour between, the nation was desperate for any news they could.

Eddie Barker, a local Dallas reporter working with CBS, was the first reporter to announce the death of President Kennedy, as told by Dallas News. Barker would go on to be the first reporter to interview Oswald's wife, Marina. Minutes after Barker's reporting, Walter Cronkite announced on CBS to the nation that President Kennedy had been pronounced dead.

Dan Rather, a Texas native and reporter for CBS at the time, was in Dallas. He recalled his immediate reaction after learning of Kennedy's death to CBS News: "After the initial hammer to the heart that an assassination of the president, the reality of that sinks in, then it was "focus on the story." Because if you don't do that, then you're at some risk of just falling apart emotionally."

Bobby Kennedy's November 22

President Kennedy did not have a closer ally in his political life than that of his younger brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. According to PBS, on November 20, Bobby Kennedy was celebrating his 38th birthday with his family. People close to the younger Kennedy noticed he was in a cold mood, as he was intensely focused on getting his brother reelected. On November 22, while having lunch, he received a phone call from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who told him that his brother had been shot.

Hoover and the Kennedys were not close, and, as told by ABC News, Bobby remembered Hoover having no emotion delivering the news that the president had been shot. As Bobby's wife, Ethel Kennedy, comforted her distraught husband, Bobby could only think about how he believed he should have been the one to be targeted, not his brother. Bobby was his brother's protector for before and during his time as president and had a reputation as a fighter, which stood in stark contrast to the cool and elegant JFK. His mind raced wondering if his push to go after the mob, the Soviets, or the Castro regime had led to his brother being targeted.

After learning of his brother's death, Bobby made his way to Washington to comfort his sister-in-law, Jackie Kennedy. But before that, he spoke to CIA director John McCone and inquired if the agency had been responsible for Kennedy's assassination, Spartacus Educational details. McCone denied any involvement in the assassination.

Interrogating Lee Harvey Oswald

After he was captured, the rest of Lee Harvey Oswald's November 22 was spent being processed and interrogated by police and federal agents. In fact, Oswald spent the rest of his life in the headquarters of the Dallas Police Department, as the National Archives details. However, Oswald was originally picked up not for Kennedy's assassination but for the death of Officer J.D. Tippit.

Dallas homicide detective Jim Leavelle recalled interviewing Oswald and receiving a suspicious answer when he asked if he had shot the policeman: "He said, 'I didn't shoot anybody.' Well I thought it was a little strange in a way because I had worked two other police officer murders and usually, they would say, 'I didn't shoot the policeman' or 'I didn't shoot the cop."

Oswald would eventually be charged and interrogated for both the murders of President Kennedy and Officer Tippit. Leavelle was handcuffed to Oswald as he was being transferred to jail two days later. No other person was closer to Oswald when he was fatally shot by Jack Ruby than Leavelle.

Returning to Washington D.C.

According to Esquire, the newly inaugurated President Johnson gave his first order as commander-in-chief at 2:41 p.m. "Now, let's get airborne" he said, desiring to return to the nation's capital. Six minutes later, Air Force One was making its way back to Washington D.C., with the body of John F. Kennedy on board and Jackie Kennedy standing close to it.

During the plane ride to D.C., Johnson spoke to the matriarch of the Kennedy family, Rose, and talked to Ken O'Donnell, Kennedy's special assistant, about his services in the new Johnson administration. "I need you more than he ever needed you. You can't leave me," Johnson said. "You know that I don't know one soul north of the Mason-Dixon Line, and I don't know any of those big-city fellows. I need you."

The plane arrived in D.C. at 5:58 p.m. local time. As the ramp came down on the tarmac in the dark of the night and among the media, A.G. Bobby Kennedy quickly made his way into the plane. He ignored President Johnson and other passengers, looking for Jackie Kennedy. Upon seeing her brother-in-law, the former first lady fell into his arms.