Arrow-right Camera
Subscribe now

This column reflects the opinion of the writer. Learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column.

Doug Clark: Cheering at Mississippi school added to JFK assassination horror

North Idaho College head librarian George McAlister stands near the Kennedy section of the library in Coeur d’Alene on Wednesday. He was a seventh-grader in Columbus, Miss., when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. (Kathy Plonka)

I wasn’t surprised by the many responses I received following my Tuesday column on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which hits the half-century mark on Friday.

If there’s one topic guaranteed to get baby boomers reminiscing, it’s the horror and heartache we felt after gunfire in Dallas turned the world upside down.

But George McAlister’s acid-etched memory of 11/22/63 is something else again.

“I had a different experience that no one really talks about,” he wrote in an email to me.

I’m nominating that sentence for Understatement of the Year, George.

McAlister, 62, is library director for North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene. He and his wife, Ann, who works in the field of occupational medicine, live in Spokane Valley.

But on that dreadful day 50 years ago, McAlister, a member of an ever-moving Air Force family, found himself living on the dark side of the moon, aka Columbus, Miss.

Growing up in saner parts of America, McAlister wore a union soldier’s cap whenever he played Civil War with his pals.

He learned fast not to wear it in Columbus.

The town was “still fighting the war of Northern aggression,” he said.

The school the seventh-grader attended was named for one of Robert E. Lee’s colonels.

They didn’t recite the flag salute each morning at Joe Cook Jr. High, he said.

“They all sang ‘Dixie.’ ”

Just 25 short miles from that bastion of bigotry Birmingham, Ala., Columbus had separate schools for whites and “colored,” and ditto for restrooms, drinking fountains and you name it.

President Kennedy’s pro-integration and civil rights views didn’t play well at all back then in the Deep South. His uppity liberal Northern ways made him a threat to the racist status quo.

So when news of his murder reached the school, “everyone in the hallway started cheering and jumping up and down,” recalled McAlister. “Even the teachers.”

McAlister was dumbfounded. One teacher, he remembers, was “sort of smirking” about the assassination, like “we’d won a football game.”

Joe Cook Jr. High did have one hero who stands tall in McAlister’s mind. A woman who taught math, he said, had the guts to express her embarrassment and disgust for the behavior of both students and her co-workers.

“I wish I could remember her name,” he added.

You can see why this man’s comments grabbed my attention.

Though hard to hear, his story also demonstrates how far this nation has come.

After chatting with McAlister over the phone on Wednesday morning, I’m glad he and Ann decided to leave San Diego nine years ago and return to his roots.

This area has always had a strong pull on McAlister, even though his nomadic family moved away just three months after his birth at Fairchild Air Force Base.

Constantly relocating from place to place was part of the package that came with having a career Air Force master sergeant for a dad, he said.

Not that he’s complaining. McAlister has a reverential respect for the man he was named for.

George McAlister the elder, who died at age 59, flew 43 missions in World War II and was shot down twice. He then went on to fight in the Korean War as well as Vietnam.

“My dad was an amazing man,” said his son.

Life for McAlister would have been a whole lot easier if only Columbus Air Force Base offered a school.

It wasn’t to be, alas. So McAlister said he and all the other Air Force kids learned to keep their mouths shut and find ways to cope.

“It was really scary for a white kid from the North,” he said. “So I can’t even imagine what it would be like for a black kid.”

Coming home on the day John Kennedy died was a return to reality for McAlister.

He found his father and mother (Esther) shedding tears for what had happened.

McAlister said he couldn’t begin to find the words for what he had witnessed at school. But the memory of those cheers and jeers have never left him.

“It marked me for the rest of my life,” he said. “It was like I was in a foreign country.”

Doug Clark can be reached at (509) 459-5432

More from this author