Midlands Army Sergeant who was a pallbearer in President Kennedy's funeral looks back 50 years later
Sgt. James Felder, Sr.
SUMTER, SC (WIS) -
1963 was a pivotal point in American History. The Civil Rights Movement had reached a feverish pitch with violent demonstrations, the assassination of Medgar Evers and the bombing of a church in Birmingham where four girls were killed.
Then the moment that gripped the nation when President John F. Kennedy was killed as he rode in a motorcade in Dallas.
Moments after the president's death, an Army sergeant from Sumter just weeks before his discharge from service got the call that changed his life forever.
On November 22, 1963 Sgt. James Felder, Sr. got the call to organize the honor guard that would bury President John F. Kennedy.
"He said, 'Sgt. Felder, you heard the news? I did. He said 'Your leave has been canceled; you need to get out here to Ft. Meyer and go to Dallas to pick up the President's body," Felder recalled.
Felder never made it to Dallas because First Lady Jackie Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson immediately boarded Air Force One and headed back to Washington.
Johnson took the oath of office on the flight as Felder was waiting when they arrived.
"We waited at Andrews Air Force Base until Air Force One came in and we took the body off, took it to Bethesda Naval hospital and stayed with it for the next four days," Felder said. "I witnessed the autopsy which took 6 hours. I witnessed the embalming because Mrs. Kennedy refused to let the body leave the hospital so the undertakers had to bring their equipment to the hospital."
Felder said the president's casket was opened only twice.
"Mrs. Kennedy came in; she had not seen the final preparation of the body," he said. "She came in, the casket was open, she looked in and she said 'He looks so waxen.' Later, Robert and Ted came with her and she cut a lock of hair from his head and the casket was closed and it was never opened again."
It remained closed while dignitaries from around the world came to the White House to pay their respect, including two men on different sides of the Civil Rights Movement.
"It was George Wallace, Governor of Alabama and Chief Justice Earl Warren," Felder said. "Kennedy had federalized the Alabama National Guard just six months earlier, matter of fact, five months earlier in June of '63 because Wallace would not admit two Black students to the University of Alabama. So, Wallace was angry about that. Justice Warren, who was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court when the Brown vs. Board of Education case was handed down. Here comes George Wallace and Earl Warren walking in together to visit Kennedy's casket."
The next day President Kennedy's casket was moved to The Capitol where thousands visited. The Rotunda stayed open all night that Sunday to accommodate the crowds.
"It was supposed to close at 9 p.m. on Sunday evening. The line of people was all the way back to D.C. stadium, almost 3 miles, it was almost 8 deep," Felder said. "Even though it was a closed casket, they just wanted to be a part of that moment in time."
While thousands visited, Felder and his team practiced.
"We practiced going up and down those steps with our training casket - what we called our dummy casket," he said. "To compensate for the weight we put sand bags in the casket and then we had two guys sit on top of it. And we practiced carrying it up and down the steps. Up and down the steps. We wanted it to be flawless."
Felder said when President Kennedy was assassinated; he was the senior person for funerals in the United States Army.
"If it had happened two weeks earlier, I would have been no place in the picture," he said.
A whirlwind three days from assassination to burial. There are many memories Sgt. Felder will never forget including John-John saluting his father.
"You try to put sympathy out of your mind but that moment just resonates with me today," he said. "I can still see him standing there. He was only 3 years old. Matter of fact, it was his birthday."