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President Obama awards Oprah Winfrey with the Presidential Medal of Freedom

on the Eve of Kennedy Assassination 50th Anniversary

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by Gloria Dulan-Wilson

US President Barack Obama awarded the highest award the US gives to a civilian, Presidential Medal of Freedom to Oprah Winfrey and Bill Clinton in a day of tributes to former President John F Kennedy. Additionally, leaders from the realm of sports, entertainment, science and public service were honored. “Today, we salute fierce competitors who became true champions,” Obama said.

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Oprah Winfrey was presented with the highest US honour by President Barack Obama. Photo: Reuters

The ceremony marks the start of a day honouring Kennedy’s legacy two days before the nation pauses to remember the 50th anniversary of his assassination.

Obama, the First Lady, and the Clintons paid a visit to the eternal flame that marks John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s gravesite at the ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.

Obama said that Bill Clinton’s presidency had been only the start of his work to improve the world, crediting his post-presidency humanitarian works as helping to save or improve the lives of hundreds of millions around the world.

“I’m grateful, Bill, as well, for the advice and counsel that you’ve offered me, on and off the golf course,” Obama said to chuckles. “And most importantly, for your lifesaving work around the world, which represents what’s the very best in America.”

Obama said the late Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, didn’t just break the stratospheric glass ceiling, “she blasted right through it.”

“Young girls need to see role models, she said. You can’t be what you can’t see,” Obama said. “Today our daughters, including Malia and Sasha, can set their sights a little bit higher because Sally Ride showed them the way.”

President Kennedy, who established the modern version of the medal, was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas on November 22, 1963, two weeks before he planned to honor the inaugural group of recipients.

As a teenager, Bill Clinton shook hands with Kennedy the summer before the assassination when he and other high school students in the Boys Nation program went to Washington.

In the evening, Obama spoke on Kennedy’s legacy of service at a dinner at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History attended by current and past medal recipients, including baseball’s Hank Aaron, astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, singer Aretha Franklin, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, activist Jesse Jackson and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Kennedy’s grandson, Jack Schlossberg, introduced Obama at the dinner. Other Kennedy relatives attended, including Robert Kennedy’s daughter Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and former diplomat Jean Kennedy Smith, a former medal recipient and John F. Kennedy’s only surviving sibling.

Friday, November 22, marks 50 years to the day since Kennedy was slain while riding in an open car in a motorcade during a visit to Dallas. Obama plans to meet privately at the White House on Friday with leaders and volunteers from the Peace Corps program, also established by Kennedy. Vice President Joe Biden, another potential candidate, plans to attend only the White House medal ceremony.

Those of us of a certain age remember all too well where we were and what we were doing when we learned of President Kennedy’s assassination in Texas. President Obama was just three years old at the time.

On November 22, 1963, I was a freshman student at Hampton Institute. Ironically, I was in my US History class, which was taught by Dr. Hyman Kuritz. We were actually discussing the Bay of Pigs incident, which almost caused Hampton to be evacuated, since it was located near so many military bases (Langley AFB, Ft Monroe, Ft. Eustace and others). We could hear a loudspeaker in the background, which kept getting louder and louder, practically drowning out Dr. Kuritz. Finally, a teacher ran into the classroom and whispered in his ear. He dropped his text book and immediately dismissed the class, after having made the announcement that someone had tried to kill the president. It was approximately 3:30 in the afternoon.

When we stepped out onto the quad, we saw that practically all of the students were gathered there. Teachers were trying to keep us from panicking, while at the same time freaking out. One instructor actually had a heart attack and died. In the canteen speculation about who did it was all over the place. When Malcolm X made the statement about “chickens coming home to roost,” many of us who were long time Civil Rights activists were concerned that they would try to pin it on a Black person just to spark a backlash.

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Kennedy with then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson looking on-cs

I remembered how I had met Kennedy when he was campaigning to become president. It was in 1959, and we were staging a sit-in at the Skirvin Towers and Hotel in downtown Oklahoma City. We were high school students, and the demonstration, one of many that we participated in, was led by the late Clara Luper, our local mentor, activist, and heroine. We had positioned ourselves in front of the elevator doors, so no one could pass through. The city managers were walking with Kennedy and tried to force us to move. Kennedy stopped him and said he would not cross the picket line. He smiled at us, turned and walked away.

I remember noting that his hair was “really, really red.” My fellow classmate/sit-inners were completely in awe of him, since, during those days, to have white man to tell another white man that he was going to respect something Black people were doing was unheard of. At that time I was too young to vote, but I remember telling my Dad that he should vote for Kennedy *(Blacks had the vote in Oklahoma before LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act). At that time Dad was a Lincoln Republican, Kennedy was a Democrat. (Isn’t it amazing how the whole scenario has changed? Republicans used to be the good guys, Democrats/Dixiecrats were the bad guys. Nobody wanted Kennedy because his family was Catholic; today they have a whole new set of issues).

When President Kennedy was pronounced dead, classes at Hampton were suspended. We were all in our respective dormitory lounges, glued to the TV set as President Lyndon Baynes Johnson was sworn in, and watched as Jackie Kennedy bravely bore up under all the tragedy. We watched as they apprehended Lee Harvey Oswald. We watched as Jack Ruby shot Oswald at point blank range, while cameramen filmed it, not thinking to stop and say “he’s got a gun.” We watched as Malcolm X was censured by the Hon. Elijah Muhammad.

But most of all, we watched as the horse drawn cart with Kennedy’s coffin, led by the Riderless Horse, marched through DC; as Kennedy’s coffin was taken by train through all the major cities, as people lined up to pay their last respects.

We watched, we cried, we mourned – we knew that things were getting ready to make a drastic change. We all knew if they could be so hateful as to kill a sitting President, they would have no compunction about leveling that same hatred against us, who were taking stands against disenfranchisement, injustice, jim crowism, and all the other evils that had been visited on Black people for more than 400 years. We watched, mourned, but we also dug in our heels because we knew we still had a lot of work to do.

Wherever you were, whoever you are, I’m sure you have stories to tell/share about that day, week, month following the Assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Make sure you do. Your children, grandchildren, siblings – the world – needs to hear them.

November 22, 1963 is an auspicious and a sad occasion at the same time, since the 60’s marks a period during which heroes on both sides of the line – Black and white – were murdered or assassinated for their beliefs and stance on the legitimacy of the liberation of Black people.

In addition to President Kennedy, Malcolm X (El Hajj Malik el Shabazz), Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Wiley Evers, and Robert Kennedy, civil rights activists Schwerner, Goodman and Cheyney, the four beautiful little girls in Birmingham (Bombingham), Alabama; Ralph Featherstone (Secretary of SNCC and a personal friend), George Jackson, (among others) were victims of violent deaths.There will, no doubt, be many other ceremonies to commemorate these fallen heroes. But on Friday, we salute the memory of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the first modern day president to be felled by an assassin’s bullet.

May he continue to rest in peace.

Stay Blessed &
ECLECTICALLY BLACK

bullet Columnist Gloria Dulan-Wilson Is a veteran New York City Journalist. Her experiences, perspective & sense of history are an invaluable combination. “check out my blog:” www.gloria-dulan-wilson.blogspot.com

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1 Comment on "President Obama awards Oprah Winfrey with the Presidential Medal of Freedom"

  1. Gloria,

    An excellent recap of history, and wonderfully written.

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