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Witnessing the American Story

JFK motorcade

President Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy, Nellie Connally, and Governor Connally can be seen waving to the crowds

What does it mean to be a witness to history? And what are the roles and responsibilities of those who do bear witness to the events that shape our world?

When President John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963, the world tuned in to their televisions with shock and awe. For the first time in American history, broadcast television provided a way to inform the nation instantly and uniformly, which allowed for the nation to mourn in unison.The citizens of the United States, both those in Dallas and scattered across the country, became witnesses to history that day. For years, people have been telling each other the stories of where they were on November 22, 1963, when Kennedy was shot, and through these tales they have bonded over a shared memory.  

This act of bearing witness to history is one that shapes not only our world, but each of us individually. These events and the people involved become part of our personal histories as well as our collective one. They provide a sense of connection, a common thread that links us, in this case as Americans, to one another in a way that is both meaningful and patriotic. Sometimes these events even change our personal histories and outlooks.

Because the role of witness is so entwined with connectivity, it is not a role to be taken lightly. The JFK witnesses, the people whom this site is dedicated to preserving and documenting, also have an active role in the portrayal of history to others. Just as we are commemorating their memories, they have commemorated the memory of JFK and the assassination that they witnessed. Each of these witnesses, from Nellie Connally to the doctors at Parkland Hospital, provide a different perspective of the events and therefore, contribute to the collective narrative. Their stories craft the way we interpret the past; they are the proverbial key to understanding our history today.

These witnesses have a responsibility to not only tell their stories but to ensure that these stories continue to be told. In recent years, broadcast media and social media has made this an easy task. Historians can use many tools to create databases of information, including databases of primary sources, and make them easily accessible to the public.In the past broadcast media has provided and still provides today a space for national mourning, but it also provides resources for future generation to experience events that have shaped our national identity.

This act of preserving the events that shape our world for posterity enables us to become witnesses ourselves. This generation of American witnesses, including our class, will use what they have learned from the JFK assassination to create their own opinions, to form their own theories, and to remember a great American president. They will carry with them their own memories such as: 9/11, the election of the first African-American president of the United States, and the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. They will add these events to the collective narrative of American history.

History can not exist without witnesses, and in part those witnesses become part of history. Their memories and records weave together the story of the human struggle, which is something that all of us, American or not, can understand. George Santayana once said, “Those who can not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The role of the witness is to ensure that we always know where we have come from in order to figure where we want to go.