These three years — 1914, 1963 and 2013 — are touchstones for change, buoys on our passage from a nation whose population was equally split between urban and rural residents in 1914, was 70 percent urban by 1963 and today is majority suburban. They are markers on our passage from a country where Radcliffe women were not allowed to ride in cars, to a nation where half of the last six secretaries of state have been women. They are milestones on our journey from a country where $100 in 1914 has the buying power of $2,296 today.
No assassination is an episode of ephemeral significance, but the killing of the archduke and the president were major turning points of history. When J. Rufus Fears, a University of Oklahoma classics professor, listed the three dozen most significant events since Hammurabi issued his code of law in 1750 B.C., he included the assassinations of Franz Ferdinand and John F. Kennedy.
But it is now, the same distance from the Kennedy assassination as the events in Dallas were from those in Sarajevo, that we can see that Nov. 23, 1963, is one of the inflection points in history. From this distance, 49 years, four months and 25 days, we can see that we live in an entirely different world from the one that thrust Lyndon B. Johnson into the presidency.
“The destruction of the past, or rather of the social mechanisms that link one’s contemporary experience to that of earlier generations, is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late 20th century,” wrote the late historian Eric Hobsbawm. “Most young men and women at the century’s end grow up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in.”
Some things have changed little. When Gallup asked in a 1963 poll whether relations between blacks and whites would always be a problem, 42 percent said yes and 55 percent said a solution would eventually be worked out. When the same question was asked in 2008, the last time it was posed, the answer was substantially the same, with 38 percent saying it would be always be a problem and 58 percent saying a solution would be found.