Sunday, March 4, 2012

As 50th anniversary approaches, Dallas’ nerves still raw about JFK assassination

by SCOTT K. PARKS / Dallas Morning News

The question hangs heavy in the air as if Dallas were still reeling from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.

What should the city do to officially observe the 50th anniversary coming up in November 2013?

“This is very important — unbelievably important — as to our place on the world stage,” Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said recently. “We can’t get out of our skis on this.”

With the event still more than 20 months away, a community group led by the Sixth Floor Museum is working behind the scenes to plan the first official commemoration built around the date of the assassination. They’re calling it A Day of Remembrance: The Life and Legacy of JFK.

The planners know that many Dallasites, especially the older ones who lived through the tragedy, prefer to let the anniversaries pass without official fanfare. To them, remembering calls up painful memories of a time when the world unfairly tarred Dallas as “The City of Hate” and “The City that killed Kennedy.”

Nothing is set, and task force members say a lot of civic, business and political leaders will be involved in decisions about what happens on Nov. 22, 2013.

“What we are talking about is the politics of memory,” said Jim Hollifield, an SMU political science professor and task force member. “Remembering is a very political thing. It’s an intensely emotional thing.”

Typically, Nov. 22 comes and goes in Dallas without much notice.

Sixth Floor Museum traffic increases, and more tourists than usual gather in nearby Dealey Plaza for a spontaneous moment of silence at 12:30 p.m., the approximate time that JFK was assassinated as his motorcade traveled down Elm Street. The museum might unveil a new exhibit, and the news media marks the anniversary with brief stories.

But next year will be different, according to historians. The 50th anniversary of a calamitous event is a bridge between older generations and younger generations who might not even know that an American president was murdered in Dallas.

Publishers will launch new books on JFK and the assassination, and those books inevitably will explore what Dallas was like in 1963 and what it’s like today. And, undoubtedly, international media will focus on the event.

“To think that the 50th anniversary can be ignored is Pollyannaish and infantile,” said Dr. Edward Linenthal, a history professor at Indiana University-Bloomington and a consultant for the Sixth Floor Museum.

“In a way, the desire to forget becomes part of the evidence of the horrific power of the event itself,” Linenthal said. “One appropriate way that you can bring a sense of justifiable pride in your city is a remembrance ceremony of great integrity.”

Open for debate?

Robert Dallek, a nationally known presidential historian, told The Dallas Morning News that the 50th anniversary is the perfect occasion to debate whether Lee Harvey Oswald was simply a misguided soul who killed JFK by himself or whether the murder was a conspiracy involving multiple gunmen and sinister forces such as the Mafia or the CIA.

“The one thought I have is that the people in Dallas would want to focus on the issue of this enduring concern about there being a conspiracy,” said Dallek, who wrote An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963.

When Dallek’s biography was published in 2003, a Gallup poll reported that 75 percent of the American public believed in one of the many conspiracy theories about JFK’s death. The poll results probably wouldn’t be much different today, Dallek said.

“I think the city of Dallas would be well-served by accepting and supporting the proposition that Oswald was the only killer,” he said. “If they do some kind of forum, it should definitely be orchestrated by the Sixth Floor Museum.”

But Dallek lives in Washington, D.C., and not in Dallas.

Task force members visibly cringe when confronted with the idea of holding a symposium that might delve into entry wounds, exit wounds and other gory details surrounding the assassination. They worry about what Caroline Kennedy, JFK’s daughter, and other members of the Kennedy family might think about such a program.

“We don’t want Dallas to be ashamed and embarrassed when the media spotlight descends on us in November 2013,” said Nicola Longford, executive director of the Sixth Floor Museum and a task force member.

“I think that whatever is done in Dallas needs to be solemn, respectful and put his death into context without reliving the details of what happened,” Longford concluded.

Plans to consider

Interviews with task force members and others involved in the 50th anniversary planning reveal the following ideas under consideration:
  • The commissioning of an original piece of music to be unveiled at one of downtown Dallas’ theaters for the performing arts.
  • The commissioning of a piece, or pieces, of visual art by the Nasher Sculpture Center and/or the Dallas Museum of Art.
  • A symposium on how broadcast television and satellite communications carried news of the assassination and its aftermath around the world. When Jack Ruby shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald on live television, it forever changed the media landscape.
  • A program highlighting how Dallas has changed during the 50 years between 1963 and 2013.
  • The unveiling of a new exhibit at Love Field commemorating the transfer of power that occurred when vice President Lyndon B. Johnson took the presidential oath of office inside Air Force One as it prepared to leave Dallas after the assassination.
One of the thorniest issues confronting the task force is what use to make of Dealey Plaza, which always has been the public gathering spot for tourists, mourners and assassination researchers.

The Sixth Floor Museum has obtained a special activity permit that appears to give it control of Dealey Plaza from Monday, Nov. 18, through Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013. The permit troubles Robert Groden and other assassination researchers.

Over the years, Groden and the Sixth Floor Museum have clashed like angry neighbors. He fears the museum will ban him from Dealey Plaza during the anniversary week and try to control what happens there.

“The museum wants to be the only game in town, but I plan to be at the same place I am every year — up on the grassy knoll fighting for the truth,” he said. “What the city could do during the 50th anniversary is fund the travel for experts on the Kennedy case and hold a formal meeting for them to talk on the case.”

Longford, the Sixth Floor Museum executive, said last week that the task force has made no decision about whether to use Dealey Plaza. Asked why she obtained the permit to use Dealey Plaza, she replied, “Just to be proactive and make sure the space is committed. The direction as of now is not to hold any event in Dealey Plaza.”

‘A tricky issue’

JosĂ© Antonio Bowen, dean of SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts, is among those involved in discussions about what to do for the 50th anniversary. A visual artist “who works on this subject” has been approached to participate in the project, Bowen said, declining to name the artist.

“This is a chance to say we are a great art city, but it’s a tricky issue,” he said. “It’s about how people feel. We don’t want anyone to think we are taking advantage of the event for the purposes of advertising or hyping the city.”

Bowen has lived in Dallas for six years and only recently has been exposed to the walking-on-eggshells nature of discussions about the 50th anniversary planning.

“There is enough hesitation that somebody will have to take the reins and say, ‘Here’s what’s gonna happen.’”

In fact, Dallas has never embraced “the A word.” The Kennedy Memorial two blocks from Dealey Plaza doesn’t mention the assassination. The plaque designating Dealey Plaza as a National Historic Landmark is only feet away from the spot on Elm Street where the fatal shots killed JFK. But it does not mention the assassination.

Lindalyn Adams, a longtime Dallasite who has devoted much of her life to preserving local history, remembers when she used to avert her eyes to avoid seeing the Texas School Book Depository when she drove through Dealey Plaza.

“I just would not look there,” she said recently. “So many in Dallas did not want to preserve that building.”

Later, Adams became the public face of the movement to create the Sixth Floor Museum, which opened in 1989.

“This is a part of our history, and it will never go away,” she said.

Your thoughts?

How should Dallas commemorate the 50th anniversary? Send your ideas to staff writer Scott Parks at We may use them in a story about the anniversary plans.

Source: Dallas Morning News

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