Pallbearer for Kennedy to speak in Salisbury

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 2, 2011

SALISBURY — When he thinks back to the night of Nov. 22, 1963, James L. Felder sees Jacqueline Kennedy getting off Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base still wearing the blood-stained dress from her husband’s assassination in Dallas.
Early the next morning, back at the White House, Felder watches the widow cutting a piece of her husband’s hair as a keepsake before the casket’s lid is closed again.
Or Felder is standing over the slain president’s gravesite, taking the folded American flag, checking it to make sure no red is showing and solemnly passing it on.
These images have stayed with Felder, an Army sergeant who headed the casket team (pallbearers) for President John F. Kennedy.
Felder stood close by as the president’s body, embalmed and restored by a Washington mortician after an autopsy, was moved from a table at Bethesda Naval Hospital into a mahogany casket.
He guarded the casket and carried it with seven other men into the White House, up and down the Capitol steps, and in and out of St. Matthew’s Cathedral.
He marched beside the caisson bearing the casket to Arlington National Cemetery, where his team took Kennedy to his grave.
Wherever he goes, even 48 years after the assassination, Felder still answers questions about his duties during those four dark days in November 1963, from JFK’s killing in the Dallas motorcade to his burial three days later in Arlington.
“I never boasted about it (but) I kept getting these questions of, ‘How were you selected?’ ” says Felder, now 72 and living in Columbia, S.C.
After his two years in the Army, Felder became an attorney and a strong figure in civil rights and voter education activities, forging friendships with men such as Vernon Jordan and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. He settled in Columbia, S.C., served briefly as a state legislator and retired several years ago as chairman of the Department of Business and Economics at Allen University.
Today, Felder has come full circle and is president and chief executive officer of the S.C. Voter Education Project. He will be the speaker at Friday’s Salisbury-Rowan NAACP Harvest Banquet, where the focus of his talk will be four historical leaders of the civil rights movement.
His role as a pallbearer for President Kennedy is a lesson in how circumstances — so random at the time — conspire to put a person in an unexpected spot, such as on the lead left handle of a slain president’s casket.
A native of Sumter, S.C., Felder attended Clark College in Atlanta where he was the football team’s quarterback and president of the Student Government Association. He participated in civil rights protests and sit-ins, spending time in Atlanta jails and courtrooms as a result.
Graduating from Clark in 1961, Felder hoped to enter Officers Training School for the Air Force in March 1962 — the first available opening — but the Army drafted him before that could happen.
He went “kicking and screaming” — his words — to basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., and eventually was one of 10 men from the base chosen to try out for the Army Honor Guard stationed at Fort Myer, Va., near Washington.
He survived a tough, two-week elimination process and was one of only two from Fort Jackson to make the Honor Guard, part of Company E of the Third Infantry. Nicknamed the Old Guard, because it is the oldest military unit on active duty in the country, the company is charged with defending the nation’s capital in case of attack.
All the men are infantry trained and combat ready. Otherwise, they conduct ceremonial duties in and around Washington, including burials at Arlington National Cemetery and the guarding of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Felder served with the second platoon — casket bearers for funeral services. Over 19 months, he participated in more than 1,000 funerals at Arlington.
During Kennedy’s inaugural parade in 1961, the new president noticed there were no black soldiers in the Army Honor Guard, and he sent a verbal order that men of color should be added to the unit.
When Felder joined the Honor Guard in 1962, he was only the 10th African American to be part of the company, which had some 200 soldiers.
As a college student, Felder had campaigned for Kennedy’s election. As a soldier, he first stood near him as part of the Honor Guard greeting a foreign dignitary at Washington’s National Airport and later on the White House’s South Lawn.
As he rose in seniority, Felder sometimes served as “presidential orderly,” whose main duties involved running short errands for Kennedy or holding his umbrella in the rain. Felder says he and the president sometimes indulged in small talk while they waited for the next thing to happen.
Felder describes himself as a “short-timer” by Nov. 22, 1963, the day President Kennedy was killed. He had only 57 days left in the Army, and most of those days he planned to eat up with leave.
Interestingly, about a month before the assassination, Felder belonged to a specially assembled honor guard — representing each branch of the military — that was preparing for the expected death of former President Herbert Hoover.
But the unit quit its rehearsals when Hoover’s health improved, never guessing a similar honor guard would be needed soon for Kennedy.
Two weeks before the assassination, the senior ranking soldier of the casket-bearing platoon left the company, making young Felder the ranking sergeant.
Military protocol called on the Army to head the special honor guard for Kennedy, and because Felder had just become the ranking sergeant, it was up to him to lead the casket team.
“If Kennedy had been assassinated two weeks earlier, I would not have been in that position,” Felder says.
Felder was taking a leave day Nov. 22, 1963, and went to a job interview at the Department of Interior. He and his wife, working at the Federal Power Commission, then planned to leave for Thanksgiving vacation in Sumter.
The assassination canceled Felder’s leave. His casket team met Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, then followed the body to Bethesda Naval Hospital, where the autopsy was performed.
Felder and his men provided security at the hospital morgue, where he had to bodily throw out two intrusive photographers and keep reporters at bay.
A new casket arrived with the funeral home attendants who embalmed the body and put Kennedy back together again. Felder and his men rolled the casket down the hospital corridor into a waiting Navy ambulance about 3:45 a.m. Nov. 23, and the body arrived at the White House by 4:30 a.m.
In the East Room, Jacqueline Kennedy, with Sargent Shriver and Robert F. Kennedy by her side, opened the casket to view the body of her husband and to retrieve a lock of his hair.
Felder says he can swear to this day that the president’s body was in the casket, despite many rumors to the contrary at the time. Felder personally stayed on watch at the East Room until 1 p.m. that Saturday, when he was relieved and able to catch a two-hour nap in the White House’s theater.
At first the casket team consisted of six men — two from the Army and one each from the Marines, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard. Because of the half-ton weight of the new casket, Felder saw that two more men (from the Navy and Marines) were added.
Worried about navigating the 36 Capitol steps leading into the Rotunda Sunday morning, Nov. 24, the team practiced for hours on the Arlington Cemetery steps leading to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
A couple of soldiers sat on top of the dummy casket to simulate the weight of the president’s mahogany version.
Felder used silent commands such as nods and winks to guide his casket team, and he instructed these pallbearers to saturate their white gloves with water for better two-handed grips.
On the day of the funeral, the casket team marched 3 miles next to the caisson — the same one that bore President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s body in Washington 18 years earlier.
A million people stood along the route between the cathedral and the cemetery. An additional 75 million watched on television. At Arlington, Felder’s team called on all of its reserve strength for carrying the casket up the hill to the gravesite.
At the end of Taps, Felder tugged on the flag to initiate its folding. His final check for red led to the flag’s delivery to Jacqueline Kennedy, who would be buried beside the president many years later.
Not long after Felder had returned from the Thanksgiving holiday, his 28-year-old company commander died unexpectedly, and Felder had to again lead a special honor guard.
Spent emotionally, he made it his last funeral at Arlington.
It took 30 years, but Felder transferred his memories from 1963 into a book titled, “I Buried John F. Kennedy.” He says he did it for his children and grandchildren and for history’s sake.
By now, he guesses that he has given hundreds of talks to civic clubs, churches and veterans groups about those dark days.
Not too long ago, Arlington National Cemetery remodeled its visitors center. It includes a huge mural showing Felder carrying JFK’s casket.
“That really touched me,” he says, “and my grandchildren were there to see it.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or Felder will have copies of his book available for sale at the NAACP Harvest Banquet Friday night at the Holiday Inn.