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What is our historical era?


DALLAS — Tuesday is a day that will be marked by no one, and yet it is freighted with history.

April 16 ties our era with the two landmark assassinations of the modern age, the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 and the murder of John F. Kennedy here in Dallas in 1963. Tuesday is an anchor that helps explain our time, giving meaning to our memories, providing perspective for the great changes that have occurred in the past century.

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand and Kennedy were separated by 49 years, four months and 25 days. Tuesday is 49 years, four months and 25 days since the tragedy in Dallas.

We think of the killing of the archduke, which set in motion the forces that produced World War I, and the killing of the 35th president, which began an era of tumult, rebellion and violence, as belonging to two very different times: one when air travel was rudimentary and another when it was unremarkable; one when Russia was a czarist empire and another when it presided over a tyrannical Communist bloc; one when the film “Birth of a Nation” was being produced with racist themes and another when Martin Luther King Jr. would lead the March on Washington; one when the World Series was between two teams (the Boston Braves and Philadelphia Athletics) that would play in different cities by 1963 and another when professional sport had become bicoastal and the Los Angeles Dodgers would win the series.

Yet we think of the assassination of Kennedy as having occurred in our own era, even though the birth rate today is half what it was in 1963 and the rate of births to unmarried teenaged females is almost five times higher than it was then; even though the average American home is 71 percent more expensive in constant dollars than it was in 1963; even though the number of daily newspapers is down 21 percent from 1963; even though there are more than 95 million Americans today with connections to the Internet, which didn’t exist in 1963, the year the mouse was invented. (The first version was wooden.) 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.

But many more things have changed in those nearly 50 years, and it is those changes that define the country we live in today.

Those who reached adulthood in the 1960s were twice as likely to attend weekly church services than those who reached adulthood in the 2000s. In 1963, almost two-thirds of Americans believed the Bible was the actual word of God. Less than a third believe that now.

Right now, about half of American adults are married. At the time of Kennedy’s death, about three-fourths were married.

No one asked poll questions about gay marriage in 1963, let alone 1914. This year, according to the Washington Post/ABC News Poll, nearly three Americans in five support the right of gay and lesbian couples to wed.

Then there is the transformed role of women. In 1963 only 20 percent of married women with children worked outside the home. Today the rate is about three times as large.

As for the nation’s political profile, in 1963, 48 percent of Americans identified themselves as Democrats. Today only 34 percent do. The percentage of Americans who consider themselves conservative remains the same (about 51 percent), but trust in government, one of the major indicators of modern conservatism, is down from 76 percent to 30 percent.

The rate of divorce has doubled since 1963. That year there were 18 arrests for drug abuse violations per 100,000 people. Now that figure is about 500. In the year in which Kennedy died, 34.9 percent of Americans watched the television show “The Beverly Hillbillies.” In 2013, no weekly show will likely hit the 10 percent figure. Almost everything is different in kind and degree from anything we knew and experienced in 1963.

(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)

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