“The president and Mrs. Kennedy were sitting in the back of the limousine, behind Governor Connally of Texas and his wife Nellie. They turned right from Main Street onto Houston, heading north before making the sharper turn at Elm Street. Street vendors and investigators have placed white tape Xs where John F. Kennedy was shot twice.”
At that point, I looked up from where I was standing on the sixth floor of the old Texas School Book Depository building and peered out the window. There it was, the exact scene of the crime from almost 52 years ago. The white Xs were still there. Shivers went crawling down my spine.
I’ve lived in Dallas for almost nine years and this was my first visit to the Sixth Floor Museum. Though the museum is located in Dealey Plaza, is a historic landmark and memorializes one of the most controversial assassinations in history, the museum isn’t one of the must-see destinations for Dallas residents today. Nor is the assassination a popular topic of discussion.
The 1960s were a time of new perspectives for American society. For the first time ever, half of the population was under 25 years old. It was a time of departure from the post–Eisenhower culture of the 50s: people lauded novels like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Silent Spring,” women donned pixie cuts and the civil rights movement was on the rise. President Kennedy was a breath of fresh air for the country. His family brought an intimate and sophisticated aura to the White House and an optimistic outlook for the nation.
Not everyone supported Kennedy and his “New Frontier” plans, though. The South, and Texas in particular, still upheld its ultra-conservative culture. It opposed Kennedy’s efforts to eradicate discrimination and his proposed Civil Rights Act. It also believed he was too soft on communism. Kennedy knew that in order to secure enough votes for his re-election, he would have to gain support from Texas and Florida. So, a trip to each was in order.
To put it bluntly, Dallas didn’t like Kennedy. His advisers warned him about Dallas and urged him not to go. Dallas was full of right-wing extremists and a split Democratic Party. A month earlier, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations was attacked in Dallas after making a speech there. But Kennedy was determined to heal the rift between the Democrat leaders and make his mark on the state of Texas.
That he did. “Mr. President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you!” Nellie Connally told Kennedy, according to the New York Daily News. “That is very obvious,” he replied. Mere seconds later, Kennedy was shot.
The assassination of President Kennedy has been discussed, debated and argued about over and over again. Was Lee Harvey Oswald a Kennedy-hating communist? How did Jack Ruby fit in? Why were there inconsistencies with the Warren Commission’s findings? Questions still remain, but the government has been forced to come to the conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald worked alone.
After leaving the museum, I walked outside into the 100-degree heat and stood on the X where Kennedy was shot in the motorcade. On the day of the assassination, a full-page profile appeared in The Dallas Morning News with President Kennedy’s face and a bold headline: “Wanted for Treason.” After the assassination, Dallas was scorned for decades. Dubbing Dallas the “city of hate,” the nation threw its anger upon the city. It has taken years for Dallas to come to terms with the events of that day.
Thus, 52 years later, I look around and wonder if we still walk on eggshells. Dallas has come a long way in rebuilding its image. It became extraordinarily important for the people of Dallas to forget about the tragedy. Many supported bulldozing the Depository. Others focused on taking the stigma off of their steady businesses. Most people in my immediate circle have never been to the museum. Until the 50th anniversary of the assassination, Dallas never officially received closure.
The ceremony on November 22, 2013 was peaceful and dignified in Dallas, according to news reports. Many spoke and reflected about that day 50 years ago, what it meant to them and the notoriety it left on the city of Dallas. Whether or not the city still emanates hate is up to visitors. Many will say we’ve moved on, and Dallas is booming with Fortune 500 companies and a growing arts culture. Others will disagree and point fingers at the ultra-conservative undertones and still-present racial unease. Either way, I stood with the other visitors looking down at Dealey Plaza in remembrance, reverence and respect for the 35th president of the United States.
Caitlin Karna is a rising sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. The Southern Drawl appears every other Sunday.
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