We gathered around Dealey Plaza. Stood on Elm Street. Walked along the grassy knoll. So many assassination tourists, so many conspiracy theorists, a few reporters, all looking up at the Texas Book Depository with lurid fascination, counting up to the sixth story, staring as if that corner window would reveal the enduring mysteries of that black day in 1963.
We wandered across Elm to read the plaque on the Depository. Pointed to the passage stating that Lee Harvey Oswald “allegedly” shot Kennedy from this building. Scratches in the paint underlined “allegedly.”
The Miami Herald had dispatched me to Dallas for the 20th anniversary of the murder that marked an epoch in the lives of nearly all adult Americans in 1963. “A fissure in the national psyche,” Norman Mailer called it.
As the 20th anniversary loomed, most of us 76 million baby boomers and our parents eventually got around to the clichéd question. Certainly, every visitor I interviewed in Dealey Plaza in 1983 recounted their whereabouts on that day two decades before. No matter how banal, they had to say it. And I wanted to hear it.
It was something we Americans shared. Like our parents remembered Pearl Harbor. Like our children, no doubt, will talk of 9/11.
By now, only a dwindling minority of the national population has been alive long enough to recount such a thing. Yet the sense of national remembrance of the Kennedy assassination seem more vivid for the 50th anniversary than for that shrug of an anniversary I covered just two decades after the event.
The cable TV spectrum these last few weeks has featured all manner of assassination programming, from sober, well researched documentaries to shows touting outlandish conspiracy theories, implicating LBJ, the CIA., the KGB, the Mafia, Fidel Castro, Miami’s exile counter revolutionaries.
Assassination books, by the thousands, keep coming, including offerings from those notable scholars Jesse Ventura and Bill O’Reilly. And in 2013, Internet archives give equal time to everything from scholarly research to the outrageously improbable. Google “Lee Harvey Oswald and Miami” and the search engine offers 21.9 million results. Along with hundreds of arcane theories that put our town at the center of a purported plot to kill Kennedy.
In 1983, to get my first look at the 26.6 seconds of the 8mm film Abraham Zapruder shot of the president’s motorcade, I had to visit the Dallas Public Library’s Kennedy Assassination Collection, where a librarian set me up at a special terminal. Today, anyone with an Internet connection can watch those excruciating images of history changing, slow, real time or 486 frames, single image by single image.
“The people of Dallas would like to forget,” the curator of the library’s collection told me in ‘83. Dallas can’t forget. In 2013, the collection now includes more than 1,000 books on the assassination, 80 film documentaries, file cabinets full of microfilm and other databases offering the findings of the major investigations, a half-century’s worth of newspaper and magazine clippings and a collections of the journals JFK Assassination Research Journal and Kennedy Assassination Chronicles.
For the 20th anniversary, the Dallas County Democratic Party invited 10,000 dignitaries to a memorial service, from the pope to Kennedy’s family, to attend. Few notables bothered. The headliners were a couple of Texan politicians, U.S. Rep. Henry Gonzalez and former U.S. Sen. Ralph Yarborough, and John Bryant, speaker of the House of Representatives in Massachusetts. “This will be the last observance of his death on Nov. 22,” Brenda Hooker, one of the organizers told me. “From now on, we’ll have the observance on Kennedy’s birthday.”
But Dallas can’t escape Nov. 22. In 2013, some 900 international media outfits clamored for the 600 credentials. The city has capped attendance at the memorial service planned for Dealey Plaza at 5,000, where, among other dignitaries, Pulitzer Prize winning historian David McCullough will read selections from Kennedy’s speeches.
This week the Dallas Symphony Orchestra is staging a special composition, Murder of a Great Chief of State, and city museums are offering special Kennedy exhibits. Texas Theater, the old Dallas movie house where police arrested Lee Harvey Oswald, will be showing the same movie showing on Nov. 22, 1963, War Is Hell.
In 2013, the city seems willing to ponder the question that has been looming over Dallas since the assassination. When I asked, 20 years later, the answers were mostly non-answers. With steely expressions. Earlier this month, as Dallas Mayor Michael S. Rawlings introduced a 50th anniversary symposium on the assassination, he said: “President Kennedy’s death would become a weight that our citizens, including those born after Nov. 22, 1963, would carry in their hearts for years to come. Did Dallas deserve the label that so many around the country and even the world gave to it: ‘The City of Hate?’”
It’s surely an unfair aspersion nowadays, for the citizens of a diverse modern progressive-minded city, with a lesbian Hispanic sheriff and a black district attorney. But in 1963, maybe not.
In 1960, when Catholic John Kennedy was running for president, the Rev. W.A. Criswell, whose 18,500-member First Baptist Church of Dallas was the largest Baptist church in the country, warned anyone who’d listen that “The election of a Catholic would mean the end of religious freedom in America.” That year, 200 women, many of them Junior Leaguers, many of them wearing their mink coats and Nixon buttons, went berserk, spitting on and jostling vice presidential candidate (and fellow Texan) Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird in downtown Dallas. Television cameras were rolling.
Three years later, just a month before the assassination, TV cameras recorded another well-dressed Dallas mob shouting and spitting at U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson. Then viewers watched Cora Lacy Frederickson, 47, the wife of a Dallas insurance executive, pop the ambassador in the head with her “Get Out of the UN” sign. “Are these people or animals?” asked Stevenson, who advised Kennedy to skip Dallas on his Texas trip.
In the fall of 1963, Dallas multi-millionaire H.L. Hunt was buying radio time for ads railing against Kennedy’s “socialist” Medicare proposals, warning that the measure would give the president life-and-death decisions over American’s health care. (The modern version of that argument suggests “death panels.”) An ad in the Nov. 22 edition of the Dallas Morning News accused Kennedy of treason. Handbills were circulated through the city that day with Kennedy’s face under block letters: “Wanted for Treason.”
Though the killer turned out to be a skinny Marxist misfit, rather than a right-wing nut, that didn’t seem to exonerate Dallas. Plenty of conspiracy theorists were still sure the killing had been the product of the so-called City of Hate. Others, of course, indicted Miami, sure that Cuban exiles, after the bungling of the Bay of Pigs invasion, had turned murderous in their contempt for Kennedy.
But there was plenty of hate loose elsewhere in the land. The South, especially, was riven with racial animus. And violence. Among the iconic news photographs from the spring and summer of 1963 were snarling police dogs leaping at a 17-year-old black demonstrator in Birmingham. Or the aftermath of a bombing of a black church in that city that killed four little girls. Or Gov. George Wallace standing on the steps at the University of Alabama in his photo-op stand against integration. It was a year of lunch counter sit-ins. And Medgar Evers gunned down in Mississippi.
On Nov. 22, 1963, I was standing in formation at my Tennessee military school when word of the president’s death spread down our ranks like the gust of wind blowing along a meadow. And the divisiveness of those times burst into the open. Angry words were exchanged. A few minutes later, a cadet from Ohio was scuffling with a boy from Mississippi, who had whooped with glee at the news that the Yankee Catholic betrayer of the white race had been gunned down in Dallas.
That’s my memory, stuck in my mind 50 years later. That fight. That’s what I recalled as I stood in Dealey Plaza, staring at Oswald’s sniper’s nest, six stories up. Some ascribe the Kennedy assassination as a marker for America’s “loss of innocence.” Hardly. That theory would suppose an innocence before Nov. 22, 1963, that didn’t exist.
But it might have been the event that forced political leaders to consider that vicious, irresponsible, mindless, bigoted rhetoric can give license to the unhinged among us. The killing was no end of innocence but it might have been the beginning of a sobering self-assessment. In 2013, in these angry times, that old lesson seems a hell of a lot more worthy of contemplation than some new trove of conspiracy theories.