I was born in a north Dallas hospital nearly five years after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in downtown Dallas a half-century ago today. By the time I was old enough to grasp the concept and significance of his death, our national grieving period was over and we ostensibly had moved beyond the tragedy.
Or so I thought.
I’ve since heard and read many stories from Dallas residents, including my grandfather, about their travels to other states and nations in the 1960s and ’70s, and the similar reactions they encountered when they revealed their place of origin: a comment about the JFK assassination said in anger, disgust, or sadness — sentiments occasionally punctuated by a pointing middle finger.
Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for Kennedy’s murder, but for years afterward, the city of Dallas was held accountable for the assassination, as if all of its residents were in on it. Despite those elaborate conspiracy theories linking various individuals and groups to the president’s death, I assure you the entire population of Dallas wasn’t in on the act.
Being known as the “city that killed JFK,” as I heard someone once refer to Dallas, is a terrible burden for a metropolis. Yet Dallas, to its credit, has never shied away from or ignored its unwanted connection to that dark day, an accountability that stands in stark contrast to the way our nation often deals with its sullied past.
Decades ago much of the city’s downtown was closed off to the public for a day while experts re-enacted Oswald’s rapid-fire rifle shots from the book depository. It was an experiment to see if their gunfire and its subsequent echoes from the surrounding buildings matched those shots inadvertently recorded that day on a police motorcycle’s radio.
Perhaps as penance for Oswald’s deed, the city of Dallas politely goes along with these occasional exercises, which are meant to either prove or disprove the Warren Commission’s investigation and the single-gun theory.
One of the crazier theories put to the test was British author and investigator Michael Eddowes’ battle to exhume Oswald from a Fort Worth cemetery — something about the body in Oswald’s grave not being his, but that of a Soviet spy. It was an amusing suggestion proved false in 1981 when an autopsy confirmed that Oswald was indeed buried in the coffin, just as most of us knew to be true.
There have been multiple Kennedy motorcade recreations in downtown Dallas as well. The most elaborate — and certainly the most memorable — was the presidential procession filmmaker Oliver Stone put together for his two-hour-plus name check of Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories, aka JFK. At least his film got the parade right.
I’ve driven numerous times over the spot where Kennedy died, but to be honest, I rarely thought about what happened there. I was in too much of hurry to notice the grassy knoll, Dealey Plaza, or the other landmarks around me. Then a white X mysteriously appeared on the street to mark the spot where he was slain. No one is sure where it came from, but it’s nearly impossible to drive down Elm Street now, see the X, and not think about that moment.
In 1989, Dallas turned the Texas School Book Depository into the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. It’s a must-see for any visitors to Dallas. And it only took a joint visit with my wife to get me to go.
Standing in the place where Oswald unleashed hell is chilling, and for me, at least, cathartic. I finally confronted and accepted that moment in Dallas history, one that will never be forgotten and, by some, never forgiven.
Contact Kirk Baird at email@example.com or 419-724-6734.