Written by Charles Graves
Published Issue: Winter 2008
I made the two-hour trip to Warm Springs on a bus loaded with supporters from Rome, Georgia. The crowd was huge and enthusiastic, and I made it onto the porch by sticking close to Judge John Davis, a Democratic nominee for Congress who went on to win handily in November. There was little security except for crowd control; no one thought it was needed...then.
Kennedy’s speech delivered, I climbed onto a chair for a better camera angle and was swept along for several feet on the shoulders of a crowd that was enthralled by the young Massachusetts senator. He was not yet myth, but after the somnolence of Eisenhower and a generation of old politicians, he was thrilling to watch. I was in awe.
It was a day to remember.
The nation’s voters chose Kennedy as the 36th president a few weeks later.
I returned to the newsroom until early in 1963 when I accepted the press aide position on the staff of Congressman Davis.
How I made it onto the Capitol steps on Sunday morning, November 24, 1963, and how I lost possession for over 40 years of the film I shot that day, certainly has no historical significance but the story is interesting.
Washington had been in a state of shock and disbelief since the dreadful news two days earlier that President Kennedy had been assassinated.
People spoke in whispers and cried openly and unashamedly in the streets.
It was announced on Saturday, as I recall, that the President’s body would to be brought to the Capitol on Sunday for a brief ceremony and to permit thousands of silent mourners to file past his bier prior to the funeral on Monday.
As sad as it was, it was to be an event no reporter would miss voluntarily.
Barricades had been erected and a good many Capitol policemen were on station, but the large crowds had not yet gathered when I arrived on Capitol Hill early in the morning. I went directly to our congressional offices in the Cannon House Office Building, located our inexpensive reflex camera and pocketed all the 120mm film I could find.
I moved my old News-Tribune press card to the front of my wallet and headed for the barricades. Approaching the first uniformed officer I met, I explained who I was and that I wanted some early crowd shots from the Capitol steps for a “stringer” story I would be writing for the newspaper back home. I would be gone in a few minutes.
In those days, most Capitol policemen got their jobs through congressional patronage, and they usually tried to be as accommodating as possible. Although obviously skeptical, the officer let me inside the barricades. Once inside, other officers apparently thought I was authorized to be there and I made it up the Capitol steps and onto the portico without being challenged.
I don’t remember the exact time sequence but it was two hours or so before the funeral cortege was to arrive. I shot numerous pictures and tried to make myself as inconspicuous as possible.
A handful of “pool” reporters and electronic media technicians began arriving on the portico, along with two plainclothes security agents. One obviously was Secret Service, and I came to believe the other was military. It was the latter who appeared to be searching his pockets for a cigarette, and I quickly offered one and lit it for him. We had a brief conversation; I explained my “mission” and was greatly relieved when he did not order me to vacate the premises.
Meanwhile, a sea of humanity quietly appeared outside the barricades, and the remaining “pool” reporters made their way up the steps to the portico.
Members of the White House staff and a military honor guard assembled and lined both sides of the stairs.
It was then that my worst fear materialized. An army colonel arrived and, accompanied by my cigarette-smoking friend, began checking credentials. There was nothing I could do but show my unimpressive press card and suffer the consequences. But as the colonel got to me, my plainclothes friend said, “He’s okay Colonel, I have already checked him.” The colonel moved on.
All else became quiet.
The solitary beat of drums and the sound of horses’ hooves were most prevalent as the President’s body arrived to be carried into the Capitol.
Senate leader Mike Mansfield, Chief Justice Earl Warren, the former governor of California, and House Speaker John McCormack each gave brief eulogies. The country’s new President, Lyndon Johnson, placed a wreath on behalf of all Americans.
The official party began leaving the Capitol rotunda, and I watched Mrs. Kennedy and her children take their first steps outside.
I heard a television cameraman whisper, “Oswald just died in Dallas.”
By that time the surname was all that was needed to identify the nobody malcontent who had slain our president. In turn, Oswald had been shot by notoriety-seeking bar owner, Jack Ruby, as he was being moved from jail to a court hearing.
Sadly, it was another day not to be forgotten.
I telephoned my story to the News-Tribune. There was no FedEx or UPS to ship my film in those days, so the newspaper used wire photos of the Capitol service.
Some weeks later I sent my film to a North Georgia lady who worked at a photography shop in Chattanooga, TN and also, along with her sister, published a small weekly newspaper. They agreed to make prints for me.
Time has robbed my memory of the details, but I learned in a month or so that the film had been misplaced. Thinking I had little recourse, and truly not appreciating the significance of the film to me in later life, I simply gave up any hope of having it returned.
With the birth of a new child and a yearning for my Georgia home, I left the congressional staff in 1965 and all but forgot about the lost film.
It was some 21 years after the assassination-about 1984-that, by a strange coincidence, I returned from a business trip to Dallas to find an envelope containing two of my Kennedy photographs. There was no note, no return address, just the pictures.
Needless-to-say, I was delighted to receive the two prints, especially one that showed Mrs. Kennedy and her children leaving the Capitol, followed by the slain president’s brother, Robert.
I was, of course, curious as to the sender but I made no effort to track down the source since I had had no contact with the sisters since leaving Washington.
I had the prints framed and again put the lost film out of my mind.
Another 20-plus years passed before a telephone call in the summer of 2005: “Is this the Charles Graves who worked for Congressman Davis?” the caller inquired.
“Yes, it is,” I replied.
“I was going through a box of old files, and I found some film negatives that I believe belong you,” said the lady, probably one of the sisters, now well along in age and long-since retired. “Do you still want them?”
“Yes, I do.”
They are, as pictures are meant to be, a moment frozen in time, a cold, sad morning that I shared with my fellow Americans, a time that was a long time ago, when all of us were young.