That's Lauderdale

Beaufort church service a shaft of light in darkness of JFK's assassination

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comNovember 21, 2013 

Fort Worth school children laugh and smile as the wait for John F. Kennedy to drive by during his 1963 visit to Fort Worth and Dallas.

FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM

  • Video playlist: JFK assassination 50th anniversary

I was at recess.

My focus in life was to kick the ball between Janet Spivey and the tree that was first base so it would roll to the bottom of the hill.

Then Mrs. Redding called her little brood of fifth-graders together and said we had to go inside. Everyone at Trinity Schools of the South gathered around the principal.

We were told that President John F. Kennedy had been shot.

Fifty years ago on this date, we learned a new vocabulary word: Assassination.

John John saluting the casket of his father was the last thing to make sense for my generation. Stuff that made no sense seemed to gather speed, like a ball kicked down the hill.

Kennedy's accused assassin was killed. Then came the killing of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Kennedy's brother, Bobby.

Our world was invaded by The Beatles, then turned on by Jimi Hendrix and Woodstock. Then came draft cards and nightly death counts from Vietnam. We watched the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. We sang, "Four dead in O-hi-o." Head shops, black lights, lava lamps and underground newspapers were considered far out.

No one over 30 was to be trusted. The Pentagon Papers and Watergate would only prove it.

At the same time, America was forced to acknowledge it did not believe in the inalienable rights of all people, after all. Medgar Evers, Bloody Sunday, Freedom Riders and Bull Connor made screeching sounds as the Jim Crow engine was being pushed off its tracks.

My dear mother sighed not long ago and finally admitted: "The '70s was a hard time to raise children."

In Beaufort County, the Kennedy assassination put a pall on what was to be one of the brightest days in its history. It was the long-awaited day that a utility we now call the Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority was dedicated. It would bring water from the Savannah River to an area where wells were already getting salty. U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond was at the wooded site in Chelsea for the groundbreaking, and U.S. Rep. Mendel Rivers was the keynote speaker.

But another gathering in Beaufort three days later also stands out as historic.

The Rev. George A. Jones, then the pastor of the Baptist Church of Beaufort, says a service at his church as part of a national day of prayer requested by President Lyndon Johnson was a high-water mark in a community struggling with racial and religious divides.

According to The Beaufort Gazette at that time, the 300 who gathered dropped their religious differences to sing together "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" and "America the Beautiful." A Baptist led the service, but participants included Rabbi Joseph C. Salzman of the Beth Israel Synagogue, Father Ronald Anderson of St. Peter's Catholic Church, the Rev. Milton Wilmersherr of First Presbyterian, the Rev. Earl F. Lunceford of Carteret Street United Methodist, the Rev. Dermon A. Sox Sr. of St. John's Lutheran and the Rev. Zeph N. Deshields of the First Christian Church.

That doesn't sound like a big deal today, but at the time it was.

"It had a unifying effect on Beaufort County," said Jones, now 93 and still going to the office four days a week at the Henderson County (N.C.) Genealogical and Historical Society.

That ecumenical prayer service did not stop the melee to come in America.

It did not end racial, religious or political divisions in Beaufort County.

But Jones looks back on it as a shaft of light in a dark time. He said it helped both black and white leaders guide Beaufort through the 1960s and 1970s "without all the rioting, marching, shooting, yelling and killing that you saw in other places."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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