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John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the first person elected President of the United States who was born in the 20th Century. He was also the second-youngest president ever elected, just a few months older than President Theodore Roosevelt.
As 1964 approached, President Kennedy prepared to run for a second term. But after proposing numerous Civil Rights reforms, he needed to show southern Democrats that he needed and wanted their support. So, in November a swing through Texas was planned. He was accompanied by Mrs. Kennedy, who was very popular among most Americans.
President and Mrs. Kennedy arrived in Texas on Thursday, November 21st and traveled to Houston and San Antonio for successful events. Friday, November 22nd, was looking fine weather-wise and the motorcade headed for a lunch-time event at the Trade Mart in Dallas. On route to the Trade Mart, the motorcade traveled slowly through the crowded streets of Dallas. Dealey Plaza was a mixture of businesses and warehouses, and it was teeming with people welcoming the president and first lady. Shortly after 1PM Central Time, what sounded like a gunshot was heard and another was also heard a few seconds later. A third and final shot rang out and the Secret Service detail accompanying the president realized that he had been struck by at least one of those bullets. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy died from his wounds on Friday, November 22nd.
As the nation was still mourning the tragic loss of this president, there was a great rush to name schools, bridges, streets, and libraries in President Kennedy’s honor. The United States government, led by President Lyndon B. Johnson, sought to honor the slain commander in chief in a proper manner. The US Mint sprang into action and discussions were begun, in consultation with the Kennedy family and Treasury officials, to see if honoring the late President with a coin would be appropriate and practical.
As early as November 27th, 1963, the Mint and the Kennedy family discussed whether to honor President Kennedy with a quarter, half dollar or dollar coin. Mrs. Kennedy was against ending the Washington quarter series, as it honored George Washington. The US had not produced a dollar coin since 1935 so that seemed to be an impractical choice. The most likely candidate was replacing the Benjamin Franklin half dollar that had been minted only since 1948.
Since the Franklin half dollar had only been minted since 1948 an Act of Congress was required in order to change the design. This was required because the design had not been minted for at least 25 years, as mandated by the Coinage Act of 1890. But the nation was in mourning and wanted a suitable coin depicting President Kennedy coin as soon as possible.
Mint Director Eva B. Adams was fortunate to have Chief Engraver Gilroy Roberts and Assistant Engraver Frank Gasparro on her staff. In 1961, they had jointly created a medal to commemorate the inauguration of President Kennedy. The Mint was under incredible pressure by Congress to issue a coin in early January of 1964 – a scant four weeks after these discussions were being held.
The obverse of the coin would be designed by Roberts, and it would portray President Kennedy, facing left, with the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST” in a straight line, separated by the truncation of President Kennedy’s neck. The word “LIBERTY” would surround his face and head with the date “1964” below his bust.
The reverse of the coin was designed by Gasparro and depicted a version of the current Presidential Seal with an American eagle at center, shield covering its breast, 13 arrows in its right talon, and an olive branch in its left with 13 leaves and 13 olives on the branch. The shield in the center has seven vertical stripes and all is surrounded by 50 small stars. The words “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” and the denomination “HALF DOLLAR” surround the periphery of the coin.
As it would turn out, the 1964-dated coins would be the only ones struck in 90% silver, as the price of silver rose from $.75 per troy ounce in 1960 to $.91 per troy ounce in 1961, to $1.29 per troy ounce in 1963. This caused the government to reduce the amount of silver in our coins in the half dollar and eliminate it altogether in dimes and quarters. Between 1965 and 1970 the amount of silver in a Kennedy half dollar was reduced from .3617 of a troy ounce of pure silver (90%) to .1479 of a troy ounce of silver (40%). In 1971, all silver was removed from business-strike Kennedy half dollars and the coin’s new composition was .750 copper and .250 nickel. Silver would only appear in proof Kennedy half dollars.
In 1976, in honor of America’s Bicentennial, new designs were minted and distributed. There are no Kennedy half dollars dated 1975. The coins were minted in 1975 and 1976 and Gilroy Roberts modified his obverse to change from a four-digit date to 1776-1976, to commemorate the United States Bicentennial, marking the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.
Artist and sculptor Seth Huntington won a competition to design the reverse of this coin for the Bicentennial. His reverse design depicts Independence Hall. To the left of the building is “200 YEARS OF FREEDOM” and to the right is “E PLURIBUS UNUM” with “INDEPENDENCE HALL” directly under the building.
From 1977 to the present time all Kennedy half dollars are composed of .750 copper and .250 nickel, except the “S” mint silver issues, which are composed of .900 silver and .100 copper, and the 2014 .999-fine gold half dollar marking the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy half dollar series. Since 1977, when the Presidential Seal was returned to the reverse, no further design changes have been made.