50 years after JFK, Dallas sheds shadow of history
Published: Saturday, July 13, 2013 at 7:05 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, July 13, 2013 at 7:05 p.m.
DALLAS — Anger seethes from the letter mailed to City Hall on Nov. 23, 1963, the day after the tragedy, raging that this city "virtually invited the poor insignificant soul who blotted out the life of President Kennedy to do it in Dallas.
"Dallas, the city of Hate; Dallas, the city of Shame."
As the nation and world mark this year's 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, special attention once again falls on the Texas metropolis. The "hate/shame" letter, which came from California and was one of many that poured in after the shooting, shows how the city instantly became a focus of fury, resentment and confusion, which locals have struggled with in the ensuing decades.
With scrutiny renewed by this year's milestone, Americans are learning again about the hostility toward Kennedy and his policies darkly voiced by some Dallasites before the assassination. The passing of five decades prompts new reflection on the city's tormented but evolving response to the crime here that changed history. And finally, many Americans wonder: How will Dallas mark that terrible day this year?
No longer are residents confronted by scorn when they tell people they're from Dallas — as then-Mayor Wes Wise was a decade after the assassination when asked by a fellow mayor how it felt to be the leader of "the city that killed Kennedy."
But it was a legacy that took time for the young city to come to terms with — a conundrum symbolized by its debate over the fate of the Texas School Book Depository, where Lee Harvey Oswald fired on the presidential motorcade from a sixth floor window.
The old depository building could have been razed but instead now houses the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, dedicated to telling the tale of that day unflinchingly.
"The story of the museum is also the story of Dallas," said Stephen Fagin, associate curator. "It's the story of the city and how the city has emerged from the long, dark shadow of history."
"Welcome Mr. Kennedy to Dallas." That was the headline across a full-page advertisement in The Dallas Morning News on Nov. 22, 1963, as the president made his way to the city on a political fence-mending trip.
A quick read made it clear the ad's greeting was sarcastic: It went on to ask a series of questions that implied he was a communist sympathizer.
Reading it, Kennedy quipped to first lady Jacqueline Kennedy that they were "heading into nut country."
Just four weeks earlier, his United Nations ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, had been harangued by a group of ultra-conservatives as he spoke at a downtown auditorium. Frank McGehee, a Dallasite who had founded the anti-communist National Indignation Convention, shouted questions at Stevenson through a bullhorn until police took him away. Audience members loudly interrupted Stevenson's speech, and as he left, a woman bopped him on the head with a protest sign.
"It was headlines across the nation," recalled Darwin Payne, a professor emeritus of communications at Southern Methodist University who was a reporter at the Dallas Times Herald in 1963.
Three years earlier, during the 1960 presidential campaign, protesters accosted Kennedy's running mate Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife Lady Bird as they crossed a downtown Dallas street from one hotel to another. At a White House luncheon in 1961, Dallas Morning News publisher E. M. "Ted" Dealey, told Kennedy to his face that a "man on horseback" was needed to lead the nation, not someone "riding Caroline's tricycle," a reference to Kennedy's young daughter. James F. Chambers Jr. of the rival Dallas Times Herald told Kennedy that Dealey's views didn't represent everyone. A war of editorials followed.
Besides McGehee's group, the anti-communist John Birch Society had an active chapter in Dallas. And the outspoken Maj. Gen. Edwin Walker, who resigned from the U.S. Army after being reprimanded for giving troops right-wing propaganda, settled in Dallas, where he flew the American flag upside down in front of his home.
Anti-Kennedy fliers in the form of a "Wanted" poster with a mug shot-style portrait of the president appeared on the streets just before Kennedy's visit. Michael V. Hazel, historian of the city who was a high school sophomore in 1963, remembers his younger brother and a friend found such literature on the neighborhood sidewalk, leaving his family appalled. To most locals, Hazel said, "I think those incidents seemed rather isolated and almost fringe-type things."
But beyond the city, after the assassination, those incidents took on greater meaning to those looking for explanations. "The city got branded with the 'City of Hate' because the extreme conservatives, the right wingers, had a following and they were good at getting publicity," said Gary Mack, curator of the Sixth Floor Museum, who added, "A lot of people knew about them, but they didn't have a lot of followers."
In fact, as the president and first lady arrived in Dallas after buoyant stopovers in San Antonio, Houston and Fort Worth, bright skies and cheering throngs greeted them. As the motorcade made its way downtown, Kennedy even had his car stop so he could greet children who'd lined up.
Crowd estimates range from 150,000 to 200,000 people, about a third of the population of the city at the time, said Mack, adding, "When you look at the films and photographs, you cannot find more than two or three negative signs anywhere. There were nothing but cheers."
Wise, the future mayor who was a reporter with KRLD radio and television in 1963, agreed. He'd covered the Stevenson fracas, which was on his mind as Kennedy's motorcade left Dallas' Love Field. "It was such a cheerful crowd that my fears kind of went away," Wise said.
Near the end of its route, the motorcade approached the school book depository, located across from Dealey Plaza, a grassy area marking Dallas' birthplace in 1841. Texas first lady Nellie Connally, sitting beside her husband in front of the Kennedys in the limousine, recalled saying: "Mr. President, you certainly cannot say that Dallas doesn't love you."
The rifle shots came moments later.
As mayor at the time, Earle Cabell was on the receiving end of much of the criticism of Dallas that quickly followed.
The letters from around the world are part of his papers housed at Southern Methodist University, one of the sponsors of a series of public programs to mark the anniversary.
One letter writer alluded to an "insanity" predominating the city and its politics, while another was incredulous that Oswald himself could have been fatally shot while being escorted by police.
Oswald was not part of a far-right contingent (in fact, he had fired a shot at Gen. Walker in April 1963). He was a Marxist sympathizer who lived for a time in the Soviet Union, but his motive in the assassination remains murky.
"It's one of the great tragedies of history that he and Kennedy would be on the same block at the same time, but it's not Dallas' fault," said historian Tim Naftali, senior research fellow at the New America Foundation.
Some letters to the city offered sympathy and support — and leaders began contemplating how to move forward.
Stanley Marcus, who led the Dallas-based luxury retailer Neiman Marcus, wrote a paid editorial on New Year's Day 1964 titled "What's Right with Dallas?" that got widespread attention. He listed not only the city's positives — such as its business climate — but also noted areas where the city could improve, including a need to eradicate a "spirit of 'absolutism.'"
Also in 1964, J. Erik Jonsson, co-founder of Texas Instruments, who succeeded Cabell as mayor, announced his "Goals for Dallas" initiative focusing on the future. Results included the new Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, kindergarten in public schools and other changes.
Current Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings called the program "a healing process as well as a planning process."
A dozen years after the assassination, with her appointment as chairwoman of the Dallas County Historical Commission, Lindalyn Adams began spending time at county offices near Dealey Plaza and noticed something striking: the constant flow of people who came to see where the president was killed.
"I could see visitors, no matter whether it was icy cold, terribly warm, hot, or whatever, night or day in that area," she said.
Adams herself had vivid memories of Nov. 22, 1963. Her husband, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology, had an office overlooking the emergency room at Parkland Memorial Hospital, where Kennedy was taken. They lived close enough to Love Field that she heard the engines rev up on Air Force One later that afternoon to return the body to Washington.
"It was absolutely terrible on all levels," said Adams, a Dallas native, "the fact the president was lost, the fact that it happened in our city, which we all loved."
Initial attempts by the city to satisfy the grieving and curious who flocked to the site proved unsatisfying.
In November 1966, a plaque was installed in Dealey Plaza giving a basic narrative of events. Four years later, officials dedicated a cenotaph designed by architect Philip Johnson. This "open tomb" featuring only Kennedy's name etched in granite amid 30-foot-high concrete walls was confusing to many. Even the discussion of a memorial stirred debate, with some in Dallas suggesting it should have been installed instead in Washington, D.C., Fagin noted, "because it was a painful memory that people here didn't want to think about."
By 1970, the Texas School Book Depository, the most visible reminder of the assassination, sat empty after the book company moved out. Following a push by a small group to buy the building and tear it down, the City Council passed an order in 1972 blocking demolition.
Eventually, the building caught the eye of county officials looking for additional space. Adams, part of a group that toured the "ghostlike, eerie" structure, recalled taking a freight elevator up to the empty sixth floor and peering from the window that had been Oswald's sniper perch. "I looked out of it for the first time and I thought, 'Oh my gosh, it's so close,'" she said.
The county bought the building in 1977 and opened offices there in 1981, with the sixth and seventh floors remaining empty.
Soon, Adams embarked on a mission to convince Dallasites something should be put in place to explain what had happened there. She found an ally in Lee Jackson, who after being elected as Dallas County judge in 1986 noticed the "persistent interest" of tourists.
"They walked around the building taking pictures. They walked around the grassy knoll and the triple underpass and Dealey Plaza. They came inside and asked how they get up and when told no they tried anyway," he said.
It was clear there was a battle over the meaning of this place, Fagin said: between visitors from outside "wanting somewhere to go to experience the history of the event ... versus the people of Dallas who were so frightened of this building becoming a shrine to Oswald or a further embarrassment to the city."
The sixth floor finally opened to the public in 1989. Even then, however, it was simply called an exhibit.
"To have a full-fledged museum was too much to take at that time," Adams said, though it's long since been accredited as a museum and expects to get 350,000 visitors this year.
Friends now tell her: "'Everyone who visits Dallas I take there. And I thought you were crazy. Thank you for doing it.'"
Of course, this process took time, said Edward T. Linenthal, a history professor at Indiana University and editor of the Journal of American History.
"If you have any kind of imagination it's a wormhole," he said. "It's a place of great sadness but you're standing at a place where the world changed."
Over time, Dallas has become more associated with the Dallas Cowboys football team and the television show "Dallas," chronicling the scheming Ewing family, than with the assassination. But the 50th anniversary has prompted reflection throughout the city.
As a counter to the "City of Hate" moniker, a nonprofit called 29 Pieces has teamed up with other organizations for the Dallas LOVE Project in which participants learn about Kennedy's legacy and create works of art expressing the "love that lives in Dallas" to be installed in the city, including along Kennedy's motorcade route.
The Dallas Museum of Art has premiered a commemorative exhibit: It reunites many works of art that Fort Worth residents had lent to decorate the Kennedys' hotel room the night of their stay in that city. The Nasher Sculpture Center will host a concert featuring a musical composition commissioned for the occasion. The Sixth Floor Museum has embarked on a speaking series featuring people with ties to Nov. 22, 1963.
The city itself will mark the date with a solemn ceremony in Dealey Plaza featuring the tolling of church bells, a moment of silence and readings by historian David McCullough from Kennedy's speeches.
"We want to be very respectful," said Mayor Rawlings. "We want to be very somber because it's a somber moment and have a sense of understated grace that I think this city has when it's at its best."
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