JFK assassination: A 50-year-old Enquirer reveals a community in shock

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comNovember 22, 2013 

A copy of the November 23, 1963, Columbus Enquirer led with the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald for the assassination of Pres. John F. Kennedy.

ROBIN TRIMARCHI — rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com Buy Photo

The Columbus Enquirer banner headline told the horrific story — "Assassin Is Charged In President's Death."

That is what Columbus residents woke up to on Nov. 23, 1963, as The Enquirer recounted the historic events of President John F. Kennedy's assassination a day earlier — 50 years ago today.

For 5 cents, The Columbus Enquirer, "founded by Mirabeau B. Lamar in 1828" as it proudly claimed under the masthead, recounted the story of the president's death.

The first paragraph of the Kennedy story read: "A gunman assassinated President Kennedy from ambush Friday with a high-powered rifle. Nearly 12 hours later a man who professed love for the Soviet Union was charged with his murder."

That was the tone of the day.

Kennedy's death was told in wire service accounts from The Associated Press and United Press International, both prominent news gathering organizations of the time. It was plainly the biggest news of the day -- maybe a generation.

Today that Enquirer, the morning paper at the time, is a 24-page, brittle and yellowing snapshot of life in Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley. It was a Columbus that was just beginning to sprawl east and north out of downtown.

And while the newspaper tells in great detail what was known in the hours after Kennedy was gunned down by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, it also tells you what it was like to live in Columbus the week before Thanksgiving, 1963.

And it reveals what Columbus and Chattahoochee Valley residents thought of the assassination.

Jane Gullatt, an Enquirer government reporter who later became mayor of Phenix City and an Alabama state legislator, wrote one of the local reaction stories to the assassination. She quoted Columbus Mayor Steve Knight.

"The prayers of all Columbus go out to his family, and we sincerely hope that the demented person who is responsible will be quickly apprehended and immediately punished," Knight told the newspaper.

The paper reported Fort Benning's official reaction under the headline "Shock, Disbelief felt at Benning."

Reporter Charles Black, who would become well known for his coverage of the Vietnam War, talked to folks at the federal building.

"I feel pretty bad," said Joe Frazier, a custodian at the post office, "but I don't want to hear of nothing happening to nobody like that. I feel bad ... that was our president they killed."

Black also talked to Wm. P. Jorgenson, the postal inspector. "They shot the President," Jorgenson said. "They didn't shoot a man, they shot the President of the United States."

The newspaper, with a photo page, also recounted an October 1960 Kennedy campaign visit to Warm Springs and LaGrange.

Perhaps what would have been the biggest story on any other day was on the sports page.

The Moultrie Packers beat a Columbus High team led by quarterback Joe Dunn in the Region 1-AAA football championship game. It was a monumental victory for the Packers, ending a 13-year championship drought.

Yes, Columbus High was a football power back in the day.

In other gridiron action, the Fort Benning Doughboys closed the season with a 3-3 tie against the Screaming Eagles at Fort Campbell.

The most intriguing score of the of the day: Pou Street beat Warren Williams 6-0 in a two-hand touch game, with Willie Nelson scoring the winning touchdown.

It probably wasn't that Willie Nelson.

But perhaps the most interesting sports story — given a half century of hindsight — came out of Auburn.

Joel Eaves, a successful Auburn University basketball coach, announced he was leaving for a new job — athletic director at the University of Georgia. Eaves brought Vince Dooley over from Auburn as the Bulldogs football coach the next season.

Auburn wasted no time replacing Eaves, announcing Bill Lynn as the new coach.

Other stories showed that reporters approached race differently back in 1963.

Take this drug bust for example:

"Narcotic Authorities expect more arrests after finding $52,500 in marijuana in Meriwether County. Some of the plants were 8 feet tall. Three were arrested. Ralph Binion, 34, and his wife, Leila Binion, 35, both of Atlanta. And Idus Prather, 41, Negro, from near Greenville."

There was an editorial page commentary that dealt with the migration of blacks from the city to the suburbs because of Kennedy's civil rights legislation. The guest column proclaimed, "Negroes Still Shun Suburbs." The article was written by Richard Spong of the Editorial Research Reports.

"There seem to be three prime reasons Negroes have not been purchasing suburban homes," Spong wrote. "They can't afford the purchase price, usually upwards of $17,000. They tend to stay with their fellows. And Negroes, most of them, just prefer the city."

The ads told their own story.

Bill Heard Chevrolet was "Mr. Big Volume," with locations downtown on First Avenue, on Victory Drive and at Lumpkin Road and Broad in Phenix City. Downtown you could get a used 1962 Corvair with radio, heater and three-speed transmission for $1,295. Mr. Big Volume had '64 Impalas on the lot.

Leon Jordan Motor Co. on Second Avenue proclaimed, "Rich or Poor, we have a car for you, no matter what price or type." Oldsmobile was the hot car for '64, according to a Rustin Oldsmobile ad.

Homes were for sale and apartments for rent.

One ad offered homes for sale in a new neighborhood called Windsor Park. "At this new desirable address we have a lovely 3 bedroom 3 bath home on an excellent lot, $23,000."

Many of the rental ads were aimed at soldiers. You could rent a "comfy" two-bedroom home on South Lumpkin Road five minutes from Fort Benning for $71 a month.

It was a different time.

At the Georgia Theater, Elvis Presley was starring in "Fun in Acapulco." And — you guessed it — it was in Technicolor. The Bradley Theater was headlining "McLintock," a Western comedy that starred John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara and shows up on late night television a lot these days. According to the ad, "Big John likes his whiskey hard, women soft and the west all to himself."

The drive-ins were alive and well in 1963.

The Victory Drive-In Theater was playing "the most acclaimed motion picture of our time," "West Side Story." Across the river, Steve McQueen and James Garner were starring in "The Great Escape" at the Phenix Drive-In.

Different place, different time.

There was Saturday night wrestling, too, in Phenix City at old St. Nick's Arena.

"Hair against mask — barber at ringside," the ad proclaimed. It was The Mighty Hercules and The Outlaw vs. Derrel "Mr. Muscles" Cochran and Chief Little Eagle — two out of three falls. It costs you $1.50 for a ringside seat.

All this was overshadowed by the Kennedy assassination, and two people summed it up best.

One was Richmond Flowers, the Alabama attorney general who was at odds with then Gov. George C. Wallace. On Page 14, deep into the coverage, a story ran under the headline "Gov. Wallace is Saddened; Condemns Assassination." In that story, Flowers called it the "greatest tragedy of the era."

Glenn Christiansen was the other. He was a Columbus resident who served with Kennedy aboard a PT Boat during World War II.

"I just wish I had been the guy to get the bullet ...," Christiansen told the newspaper. "I can't really talk intelligently about it now ... It was the most tragic thing ... I am all torn up inside."

Chuck Williams, senior editor for content, chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.com.

Ledger-Enquirer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service