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Thursday, November 21, 2013
While in college walking out of history class “USA Civil War-Present,” I ran into
a crying coed yelling: “President Kennedy has been shot”! She repeated it several times.
Another chapter was being written. It was a very serious and poignant chapter.
All classes at the University of Kentucky were suspended for the rest of the day.
I immediately went to the Student Center. The TV lounge was wall to wall with
students glued to the images on the screen. I watched until Walter Cronkite said:
“President John F. Kennedy is dead.”
Very depressed and confused, I headed for a popular bar near our campus. A
friend said to me it was probably some redneck that hated Kennedy. I didn’t know and I
didn’t care. All I knew was that my President was dead. I started drinking. We moved
from there to another bar and closed it down.
Sleeping was difficult that night but I woke up fairly early. It began raining later
that morning, but for some reason UK played our traditional season ending game
versus Tennessee. I am not proud of that because we were one of only 3 games in the
United States not cancelled that day. We lost 19-0.
I will never forget the score, because I can never forget that Saturday. My friend
and I sat through the whole game, getting soaked with rain and bourbon whiskey. After
the game, we headed to another bar. The bar had a TV and all stations were carrying
news of the assassination.
We watched the TV and drank and I kept glancing up at the TV. Various
commentators weighed in on the events of Friday and Saturday and I watched the line of
people enter the rotunda to view JFK’s casket. The line was long but it was moving
fairly quickly. When I saw Jacqueline Kennedy kneeling and Caroline peeping under the
flag, I made a spontaneous decision. I was going to Washington, DC to pay my respects.
It was about 11 pm and I didn’t have much cash so I borrowed from friends and
asked someone to drive me to the bus station. Everyone thought I was bluffing and just
drunk, but this person drove me to the Greyhound station. I thanked him and went inside
to purchase my ticket.
Not long after boarding, I passed out from the two day drinking binge. On Sunday
afternoon, we pulled into a rest stop. It was about a ten-minute layover. I awakened to
people shouting “Oswald’s been shot”. I went inside and the TV was replaying the tape.
The weekend was becoming more confusing each time something happened. At the time
I—like most Americans—was in shock and didn’t know what to think of Oswald’s death.
My bus arrived in DC Sunday night at approximately 8 PM. I had something to
eat with a person I had met on the bus. Upon leaving the station, I searched for the
line snaking through the streets heading toward the back of the U.S. Capitol to view
JFK’s casket, lying in state under the rotunda of the building.
The line was more rowdy than what I saw on TV Saturday. People were cutting
in front of each other and trying to get ahead. It was like a maze winding through the
streets and was 35- 45 blocks long. I was just trying to keep up. After what seemed like
hours, we turned a corner around a hedge and arrived in the area
leading to the steps of the Capitol.
At that point we came to a crawl. The line was about 15 yards wide and the
Capitol just a bright white structure in the distance over a sea of silhouetted humanity.
More people were arriving behind me. There were thousands.
The line moved like a snail and I was very cold—wearing just the clothes I had on
when I boarded the Greyhound. A group of people ahead of me was singing: “We Shall
Overcome.” The mood was somber and everyone was polite. No pushing and shoving.
As I looked around, there were people of all ages. Many were in states of
disbelief. Some were crying. People were consoling one another. I remembered Martin
Luther King Jr’s: “I Have A Dream” speech I had watched on television just three
After standing in that line for 3 hours, we had moved about 20 yards. Now it was
2 a.m. I was very cold and getting discouraged. I didn’t want to give up, but I just could
not see the possibility of getting in to view the casket in state. Plus, since I had learned
the funeral and burial would be today—and it was already today—what chance did I
I finally dropped out of the line and began walking toward the Capitol. I reached
the steps and just sat down. I put my head in my hands and rested my elbows on my
knees. A Capitol Policeman came over to me and asked me if I was OK. I told him my
story and how I had made it to DC.
The officer then asked me to stand up and pointed to an area in the massive line
waiting to get in. He said: “You see the people behind there? They will not make it in.
The casket leaves the Capitol at 10 AM. If you really want to view the entire procession,
find yourself a place to stay the rest of the morning and be on Pennsylvania Avenue at
about 7:30. You will see more than any of these folks.”
I took his advice and headed back to the bus station. I didn’t have money for a
hotel. I had to ask for directions a couple of times because if you weren’t there you
cannot imagine how many twists and turns in the DC streets it took to get to the spot
from which I left.
By the time I got there, it was almost 4 am. I went to the hardback benches in the
waiting area. It smelled of urine, but it wasn’t long before I fell asleep. I was exhausted.
The tapping of a DC policeman’s nightstick on my knees startled me awake. I
can only assume he thought I was a bum. I had been wearing and sleeping in the same
clothes for about 36 hours.
I got up quickly and went to the cafeteria to get something to eat. It was about
6:30. I had less than $15. I got coffee and an egg sandwich. After finishing, I went
to Pennsylvania Avenue. The sidewalks were already beginning to fill with people. I
found a policeman and asked him where the best place would be to view the procession.
He pointed toward what I soon realized was very near the South Lawn of the
White House. It was the corner of 15th Street and Pennsylvania Ave. By then there were
Marine color guards spaced on the street along the curb. I found myself a spot between
two of them on the curb right on the corner where the street narrowed as it turned toward
the White House.
I could finally see the procession leaving the Capitol. The entire avenue from the
was lined with people. The crowd was about ten people deep behind me. The Avenue
was pin drop quiet. It was in direct contrast to the night before. As the procession
neared, the sound of drums—tha-rumph, tha-rumph—began echoing off the buildings.
The Marine band was playing Chopin’s “Funeral March”.
Limousines approached carrying family and dignitaries. As the lead car turned
slowly onto 15th Street, the sun was shining on the back window and I saw Jacqueline
Kennedy. Robert F. Kennedy and Ted Kennedy were on either side.
It is difficult to convey to another the emotions evoked and displayed during the
actual funeral march. Sadness being an intangible, it was nearly impossible for one to
describe the feelings of another.
The solemn sound of the black draped drums brought my heart to my throat. I
stood on that corner and watched pass by—about 15 feet away—on a caisson drawn by
majestic white horses, the flag draped casket containing the body of John F. Kennedy,
35th President of the United States.
It was at this moment, with the realization of who was in that casket, I knew how
manifestly small I was. The single tear in the corner of my eye was not to be hidden
because I was not alone. People all around me were crying.
It seems now, recalling the sad and memorable occasion, that perhaps the flag
which covered the casket should have been buried with the President. Because the late
President Kennedy in a sense, was America.
Roy Lee Lawrence, known as Lee Lawrence, is a Los Angeles based photographer who celebrates the beauty and presence of the American urban and social landscapes through his insightful, compelling documentation. While Lee did not have a photograph from the time of this story to go along with it, he has, through this narrative, crafted a vivid picture of this historical day that changed the world.
Tuesday, November 19, 2013
Welcome to guest blogger photographer Hannah Kozak. Hannah's journey with photography is lifelong and powerful.
Hannah's portrait of her Mother and Aunt was featured in this recent exhibition: http://earlyworksproject.org
Also, Hannah was one of the 12 winners of the 5th edition Julia Margaret Cameron Award for female photographer of the year, 2013 for her series "Pain and Loneliness."
It is a great honor to know Hannah and to feature her work here.