Nov. 22, 1963: Locals remember day that changed history
NATCHEZ — The assassination of President John F. Kennedy sent shockwaves throughout the Miss-Lou when residents stopped and reflected on the gravity of the situation.
At 12:30 p.m. Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas, a lone gunman shot and killed Kennedy as the president and his wife road in a motorcade at Dealey Plaza.
50 years later, residents alive during the president’s death don’t take long to recall where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.
Mary Toles was 23 years old and working in the X-ray department at Jefferson Davis Memorial Hospital — now Natchez Regional Medical Center — when she heard the news.
Entering into the main auditorium of the department, she heard two male technicians talking when one of them made a comment he was glad that someone had shot the president — though the term the technician used was much less polite.
“I just almost cried,” Toles said. “I went to a little dark room in the back where they had a kitchenette section, and I just cried.”
The news had come over the radio, and Toles and two other members of the staff gathered in the back of the room, huddled and somber for the rest of the evening.
“It was as if I had lost a member of my family,” she said. “It took a while for us to believe it.”
After work and into the weekend, the response was the same.
“Everybody that we ran into, if we went anywhere, it was just total disbelief. It was a lot of hurt,” she said. “I think the nation went into mourning — for the most part people were devastated by it, and we watched the TV all weekend trying to find out more.”
Some parts of the story have never made sense to Toles. She never accepted the Warren Commission’s version of a single shooter, and a couple of years later — while visiting family in Dallas — went to the site of the assassination and looked at the famed grassy knoll, but it never made sense.
“There was just this belief that something had slipped through, and for a long time I harbored those feelings that there was more to it,” she said.
“I’ll never forget those feelings.”
Former mayor Tony Byrne was 27 and working at the chamber of commerce when he got word of Kennedy’s assassination.
“We were shocked that it had happened, especially to Kennedy,” Byrne said. “Everybody was just kind of numb. You just didn’t believe that somebody could kill a president.”
Kennedy’s death brought feelings of uncertainty about the future of America, Byrne said.
“Everybody was wondering, ‘What’s next?’” he said. “‘What is going to happen now that we lost the person we had confidence in. It was just an uneasy feeling.”
JFK’s assassination forever changed Americans and changed Byrne, he said.
“It just changed us completely,” he said. “It was such a shock that people backed up and starting taking a look at their own lives. I believe it made a drastic difference in the lives of people of my generation.”
Kennedy was assassinated three years before Byrne was elected as a Natchez alderman, but Byrne said JFK inspired him as a politician.
Byrne said while he was running for alderman in 1966 and mayor in 1968, some compared him to Kennedy because of Byrne’s civil rights support and his Catholic faith.
“It made me feel very good that people would consider me anywhere close to what (JFK) had been,” Byrne said.
Throughout his political career and especially during the Civil Rights movement, Byrne said Kennedy’s assassination stayed with him.
“You think about it all the time,” he said. “When I was in office, Reagan got shot, too, and I thought about it happening to me with the KKK, primarily, because they didn’t like me because of my involvement with the black community and because I was Catholic.
“It wasn’t as prevalent in small towns, but you knew that something could happen. It was in the back of your mind all the time.”
For Susan Callon, Nov. 22, 1963, started like any regular school day at Carpenter No. 1 Elementary School.
Callon was 9 years old at the time and had just sat down to eat lunch in the school’s cafeteria when she heard someone on the intercom.
“They came over the loud speaker and said that the president had been shot and was dead,” Callon said. “One of the main things I remember is being totally amazed at the number of students who seemed happy about the news.
“That really left a lasting impression on me.”
While Callon said her family wasn’t blatant Kennedy supporters, she also said her parents were always patriotic Americans who stood by the leader of their country no matter what.
“He wasn’t a big person in our household, but my parents loved their country and would never be happy or clap because the president died — even if you did disagree with him,” Callon said. “My parents were always very patriotic and supported every president.”
The impact of Kennedy’s assassination on the country didn’t sink in with Callon until a few years later, she said.
“As a fourth grader, I just knew our president had died and that was it,” Callon said. “When I started reading more about history and got older, I realized how much that moment meant to our country’s history.”
The Rev. Leon Howard
It started out as an ordinary work day for Leon Howard. He was in Vidalia, laying concrete as part of an erosion-control project.
Everything was fine until a man walked up to the work site and told him the president had been shot.
“It was a stunning moment, I tell you,” he said.
And that was it. It was the kind of news that could end a work day.
“I just had to go home,” Howard said. “I didn’t believe that could happen to a good man — he was a good man.”
That afternoon, Howard stuck close to his house, praying for the Kennedy family, eyes heavenward and ears to the radio.
“I kept my ear to the ground,” he said. “I wanted to hear everything.”
The next few days seemed to stretch.
“We didn’t know what to expect next,” he said. “This was a thing that was hard to believe. It left you with a great sense of void.”
Eventually, things returned to normal, but Howard said he has never fully grasped the why of the situation.
“It was like losing a family member, a close family member,” he said. “I had watched him and listened to him, and everything he said was for the people, and I couldn’t understand why someone would be so evil as to kill the president.”
Lindsey Shelton, Vershal Hogan and Rod Guajardo contributed to this story.