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Historical Highlights

Honoring President John F. Kennedy

November 24, 1963–November 25, 1963
Honoring President John F. Kennedy Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration President John F. Kennedy's family leaves the U.S. Capitol following his state funeral on November 24, 1963.
For two days in late November 1963, President John F. Kennedy lay in state in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, not long after he was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. On November 24, an estimated 300,000 mourners had lined the 1.8 miles from the White House to the Capitol to pay their respects as the procession carrying Kennedy’s body traveled slowly down Pennsylvania Avenue. A thunderous 21-gun salute honored the late President as members of America’s armed forces carried his flag-draped casket into the Rotunda. Kennedy’s wife, Jacqueline, their two children Caroline and John, the President’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and other family members, alongside President Lyndon B. Johnson and the First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, listened as Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, House Speaker John McCormack, and Chief Justice Earl Warren eulogized the 46-year-old Commander in Chief. Capitol Police had initially planned to close the Capitol at 9:00 p.m., but the crowd waiting to get in was so large the doors remained open all night. A continuous stream of people filed past the bier situated in the center of the Rotunda, directly underneath the Capitol Dome. Wreaths of chrysanthemums and white lilies framed the catafalque—the same one that had shouldered the remains of Abraham Lincoln nearly a century earlier. “Long after midnight,” the New York Times reported, “the silent procession of mourners continued. Some wept. All were hushed.” Millions more watched on television from home. That night, metropolitan police reported that the line waiting to enter the Capitol stretched for nine miles, stunned mourners “seemingly prepared for an all-night vigil.” As a House Page in 1963, George Andrews ushered visitors through the Rotunda past Kennedy’s casket. Around six in the morning on November 25th he took a break. “I went out on the balcony of the East Front, which was new then,” he remembered. “And I stood out there, the sun was coming up. You’ve got the Supreme Court over here, you’ve got the Library of Congress over here, the sun, everything’s gold, beautiful day, and as far as I could see, people. All the way down East Capitol Street as far as I could see. And I thought to myself, and it was almost like a tomb. There’s no noise, unbelievably quiet.” A second procession carried Kennedy’s casket to the Cathedral of St. Matthew in Northwest Washington later that day. Kennedy, a naval officer during World War II, was interred at Arlington National Cemetery that afternoon.

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