Dallas 50 Years Later
To live in Dallas is to own a small piece of the trauma of JFK’s assassination, writes Kael Alford. The tragedy came to define Dallas to the outside world but failed to describe residents’ own personal experiences. As the city prepares for the 50th anniversary of that fateful day, those memories are resurfacing. Photos and text by Kael Alford.
I am not from Texas, but when I covered the U.S. invasion of Iraq and stayed in the home of a prominent sheik in a remote village outside Falluja, he and his family would test my American authenticity by asking, “Who shot J.R.?” “I have no idea,” I told them “I’m from New York.”
In a twist of fate, I recently moved to Dallas, Texas where the most popular tourist attraction is not the ranch where the revamped television show Dallas is filmed, but a short stretch of Elm Street where two large white “X”s are painted on the asphalt at the approximate place where two bullets struck President John F. Kennedy when he was murdered in front of hundreds of bystanders in 1963.
It was a national trauma, and while the city has outlived its reputation as the “city of hate,” many of the people here are still dealing with the aftermath 50 years later. In the lobby of the Texas Theater, the site of Lee Harvey Oswald’s arrest, a Dallas Morning News editor who’s lived here for less than a decade told me about his feelings regarding the assassination. “I’m not even from Dallas,” he said. “But somehow I feel partially responsible.”
We’d just seen a documentary produced by the Morning News called JFK 50: Eyewitness to History. The restored art nouveau theater was bursting with men and women well over 50-years old who came to see the first hand accounts of those journalists and police working the news and investigation in 1963. When the lights came up, a man with wispy auburn-grey hair stood with the help of a cane and called out from the back of the theater. “The FBI had information in [Oswald’s] file that he might be a very dangerous individual. It’s in the Warren Report… I want to tell you how pissed off I am with the FBI!”
The man was Paul McCaghran, 81, a lieutenant in the Dallas police force when he was called to investigate Oswald’s murder by Jack “Ruby” Rubenstein during Oswald’s transfer from the basement of the police department to the county jail. The Texas lawman’s long-standing accusation was not of conspiracy, but of federal mismanagement. His feelings are emblematic of the long-standing regrets felt by members of Dallas’s 1963 police force.
The FBI, who had been watching Oswald for his communist tendencies and history of contact with the Soviet Union, hadn’t deemed it necessary to share their knowledge of Oswald with the Dallas Police. The murder of a president is a huge burden for a city to bear, a city that Oswald had only lived in for only a couple of years.
The Dallas Police who stood by helplessly as the president was shot and then lost their prime suspect Lee Harvey Oswald to another assassin spent the rest of their careers regretting those days. “Kennedy was killed on our watch,” McCaghran told the Morning News last month. To some extent, we’re responsible for that… and you can’t make that go away.”
Dallas swore that this would not happen again and security for high profile events can often seem over-vigilant. When the George W. Bush Presidential Center opened at the Southern Methodist University campus earlier this year with six living presidents in attendance, students who did not have class that day were asked to stay home. Security for the anniversary of JFK’s assassination is such that the only people allowed near Elm Street in Dealey Plaza on Friday will have submitted to background checks in July. Anyone else, including the conspiracy theorists who camp on the grassy knoll to commemorate the assassination on the anniversary every year, and then mingle with tourists the rest of the year, will be barred from the secure perimeter. County and municipal buildings in the downtown area will be closed.
To live in Dallas is to own a small piece of the city’s 50-year-old trauma. The physical and cultural landscape here makes it impossible to forget, even for a newcomer like me, that the Kennedy assassination has a unique local significance beyond the sum of its terrible pieces. The tragedy came to define Dallas to the outside world, yet failed to describe residents’ own personal experiences.
At multiple public events in the last weeks—film screenings, panel discussions, art installations, a conspiracy theorists’ conference, in a month long series in the Dallas Morning News and on the local public radio station KERA—Dallasites have been sharing their reflections on the assassination that range from personal and somber to irreverent and conspiratorial.
Tourists photograph the scene of the crime in Dallas near the triple overpass and the former Book Depository, where Oswald fired his shots.
Betsy Naylor, a dental hygienist, was 10 when Kennedy was shot and is the picture of Texas manners and grace. She was living in Houston in 1963, but had family in Oak Cliff, not far from where officer James Tippit was shot and killed by Oswald while the officer was trying to question him on the street. Were it not for Tippit who recognized Oswald from his description and stopped to question him, Oswald might never have been captured—that’s well understood in Dallas. “It was strange to me at the time, but the people I knew in Oak Cliff were more upset about the killing of Tippit than the president,” Naylor said. She attributes that to politics; her family was divided between supporters of Kennedy and Nixon. “The women all voted for Kennedy of course because he was so handsome.” She remembers women buying fake leopard fur coats because Jackie Kennedy had a real one.
Not unlike today, Texas was home to some particularly conservative and somewhat adversarial politics in 1963. Some in Kennedy’s circle warned him not to come to Texas at all for fear of radical sentiments here. An angry crowd had heckled and assaulted Kennedy’s appointed ambassador to the UN just weeks earlier.
Still, many in Dallas say the city didn’t deserve its nickname, “The City of Hate” as it became known after the assassination when a flood of angry letters were sent to the mayor of Dallas from all over the country. The letters are now housed in a library archive at Southern Methodist University. Older Texans remember being heckled and harassed outside the state for driving cars with Texas license plates.
The Sixth Floor Museum preserves the site where Oswald made his sniper’s nest stacked with boxes in the book depository, and allows visitors to see but not enter the corner with the window where Oswald sighted his target. Ross Perot among other prominent Texans wanted the building destroyed, but the city bought the site in 1979 and a devoted group of citizens have cultivated it as a museum that today receives more than 325,000 visitors annually. Jackie Kennedy herself approved the design of a monument that stands a block away. It’s a 30-foot tall white, modernist cube hovering on supports a couple of feet above the ground, with narrow entrances in the north and south walls and a view of the sky overhead. Designed by American architect Phillip Johnson as a cenotaph or “open tomb” to be a place of reflection, Betsy Naylor calls the monument “the ugliest thing ever.”
In hopes of offering a different historical perspective on the meaning of Kennedy’s death, Dianne Solis, a staff writer for the Morning News moderated a panel in the Sixth Floor Museum sponsored in part by the Ochberg Society earlier this month with prominent members of the Latino and African American community. Alberto Valtierra, president of The Dallas Mexican American Historical League, said that “Kennedy cared about the same things that we care about.” He discussed the “Viva Kennedy” clubs, organized in support of Kennedy’s 1960 election, that were targeted for surveillance by the FBI for communist activities. “We called each other commadre or compadre,” colloquial words for respect in Mexican Spanish, but the FBI thought they were saying comrade [in the communist sense] and monitored them. His sister, Rosemary Hinojosa recalled that on the wall of many Mexican American homes, one could find pictures of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Caesar Chavez and JFK hanging in a trinity. Brenda Spencer Robertson turned to her and said, “That’s funny, because in the African American community, we had pictures of Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy on our walls!”
Hinojosa read a letter she wrote at the age of 12 to Jackie after the assassination, which she still has because at the time, she didn’t know where to send it. She read the letter to the audience. “I weep with you, as all the nation does…” her voice broke and she choked back tears surprising herself. “I can’t believe I still get emotional after 50 years!”
Visitors to Dallas point at the landmarks in Dealey Square.
Like many Americans born after 1963, my relationship to the assassination is shaped by the ghostly, early-generation 16mm film recorded on a home movie camera by Abraham Zapruder. Shortly after coming to Dallas I saw the film that now replays in my memory in slow motion, frame by grisly frame, at the Sixth Floor Museum, displayed alongside a tape from Kennedy’s funeral with the original music that visitors can hear with headphones. It’s a powerful experience standing only a few feet away from Oswald’s position, surrounded by images, sounds and objects of 1963 floating in the intimate quiet above Dealey Plaza. The thoughtful and thoroughly curated museum is one that Zapruder likely would have approved of. Friends say he was uncomfortable with the large sums of money offered him by news agencies for copies of his footage, so when he finally sold the rights to Life Magazine for $150,000, he gave $25,000 to officer Tippet’s widow. He also insisted that the most graphic frame of the film be withheld from Life Magazine’s initial November 29, 1963 publication of the film stills. Zapruder’s family donated all rights to his film to the museum in 1999.
On weekends, tourists who visit Dealey Plaza stand arm in arm in the middle of Elm Street for photographs. Sometimes they even lie down on the “X” in the road dodging moving traffic for a moment of connection to remember the visit. Conspiracy theorists sell newspapers and books, engage the curious in conversation on “the grassy knoll” where a large number of visitors seem skeptical of the official story that Oswald acted alone, although the majority of scholars agree with that conclusion. Perhaps some of the endless speculation can be understood considering that even the most level-headed, eyewitnesses have trouble connecting what they saw to their understanding of the world.
Pierce Allman, a reporter who was in the Book Depository the day Kennedy was shot, may have been the first person to speak to Oswald after the shooting, when he unknowingly asked a man that fit his description where a phone booth was so that he could report on the events.
Pierce Allman, a local WFAA television news reporter drives past the site daily on his movements around the city—his workplace is blocks away—and still feels a sense of unreality, even though he was both an eye-witness and one of the first journalists to report on the crime. “You think of how much happened and how fast. It’s incredible,” he said. “It’s the 50th anniversary, but there’s absolutely no sense of time. It’s forever 1963.”
Allman was asked to testify before what has become known as the Warren Commission, the U.S. government’s first attempt at an investigation of the killing. Allman was the only one who saw Oswald leave the book depository. He even exchanged a few words with Oswald on the steps after the shooting about the location of the nearest pay phone. Oswald pointed to the lobby. Allman spent the following hours on the phone reporting live on the radio. Later, with the professional skepticism of a well-trained journalist, he told the Commission that he couldn’t be one hundred percent certain it was Oswald he spoke to in the chaos, though the man seemed to fit Oswald’s description perfectly. There were so many photos published of Oswald in the following days, Allman said, that he feared by the time he testified his memory had been supplanted.
It was different when the motorcade passed. He saw the car round the corner onto Elm Street, with everyone cheering and clapping. He shouted a greeting to the president, then the first explosive shot rang out. He describes the scene that replays in his memory. “You hear it, and you see everything, and sometimes it’s in slow motion.” As we stood on the steps of the book depository, he looked across the street to the spot on the plaza where he stood that day as if it was haunted. “I accept what happened. I understand factually what happened. But still at times, I say, it’s not really there.”
James Teague was hit with shrapnel from the shots fired at President Kennedy.
In contrast to Allman, James Tague is a conspiracy researcher who also held a key piece of first hand evidence from the shooting and rejects the official account of events. He was traveling in the opposite direction from the president, on his way to a date with his future wife when he got stuck in traffic due to the president’s motorcade. Stopped in traffic underneath the overpass that straddles Elm Street, Tague decided to get out of his car and watch the parade. When the shots rang out, he felt a stinging on his cheek. Fragments of metal or perhaps concrete from the curb in front of him, peppered his face. In the chaos after the shooting, Tague spoke to a nearby policeman who noticed the small amount of blood.
Teague’s testimony to the Warren Commission became crucial evidence because it revealed that one of the shots had missed its mark. Tague has since written two books, the latest implicates Lyndon Johnson in a conspiracy to kill Kennedy. He said his sources were those close to Johnson. “I knew I would write a book one day,” he said as I made his portrait on the plaza. In the parking lot behind the Sixth Floor Museum, Tague sold copies of his latest volume to visitors who seemed to think they might finally learn the truth.
Minutes after Tague’s minor injury at the overpass, the president’s envoy burst through the doors at Parkland Hospital. Phyllis Hunt, who was 28 at the time, wasn’t at her usual station; she was visiting a friend at the triage desk on her lunch hour. “It was 50 years ago but I have a perfect memory.” She said. “It was like yesterday.” Hunt heard Governor Connally before she saw him pass; he was having so much trouble breathing. “Every time he was breathing out, blood was just misting everything.”
Phyllis Hunt was at Parkland Hospital when President Kennedy was brought in.
Then she saw the gurney with Kennedy. He wasn’t wearing any shoes but his socks were still on, and Jackie was lying across his shoulders and his head. She was holding the gurney on the far side so she wouldn’t fall off. A man with a gun appeared and told Phyllis she was needed. She followed him and to the president’s room and began to search for vital signs. Hunt was in emergency mode for the next 43 minutes as doctors tried to revive the president. Kennedy was pronounced dead at 1:00 pm.
As one doctor headed out the door, he walked past Jackie and said, ‘Madame, your husband is dead.’” He didn’t even stop to face her, said Hunt. Mrs. Kennedy had been standing at the foot of the cart, her hand on her husband’s foot. She was in the most profound shock Doris had ever seen in anybody. She didn’t appear to react. Someone asked Mrs. Kennedy if she’d like to get cleaned up. Her pink suit was covered in blood. The first lady shook her head no. Most of the doctors had already left the room, and Doris was among the last to go. “So I did stop in front of her and I said ‘I’m just really sorry for your loss.’”
As a medical professional it wasn’t the ruptured bodies that moved Doris, it was her empathy for Jackie Kennedy. “The emotion I felt at that minute, and there was a lot of emotion, was of a wife and a mother,” said Hunt. “Every week or so you’d see those kids in the Oval Office or under the desk, and of course she had just lost that premature baby.” When she finally got home to bathe and feed her own kids her husband had already done it for her. “I was just kind of numb,” she said.
Over the years Hunt’s appreciation for the Kennedy family’s trauma has intensified. Doris’s children are grown, she lost her own husband 26 years ago and she has had more time to reflect. “This time of year I’m more focused on it,” she says.
Back at the Texas Theater in Oak Cliff, a popular venue for 50th commemoration events, residents are processing the meaning of the assassination in other ways. In an upstairs gallery overlooking the lobby called “The Safe Room” because of the massive antique safe bolted to the floor, “outsider” artists show altered newspaper clippings, paintings, drawings and sculptures. Artist Bruce Webb, who also owns a gallery in Waxahatchie, Texas is downstairs at the bar after the opening—this theater is so hip that it has a bar—with fellow artist and curator Randy Murphy. Murphy has printed a large photo from an abandoned Chicago Tribune news archive of the Kennedys arriving at Love Field that hangs on the wall above them and has also framed a copy of Oswald’s mug shot and the Dallas police report from his arrest. Webb’s contributions to the small exhibit upstairs include deceivingly naïve-looking portraits of “Jackie O.” and of Oswald painted with child-like strokes in black ink on medical textbook pages and a papier mache head of Kennedy with a flag that reads “conspiracy” projecting from a hole in the back of the paper skull. He asks me about the stories I’ve been hearing around the city, and whether or not I think there is any kind of cover up or conspiracy. I tell him that from what I have learned listening to colleagues, speaking to eyewitnesses and reading a small fraction of the documentation, I don’t see any major missing pieces. Bruce says that maybe the question of whether there is an actual conspiracy misses the point.
“People come to Dallas and it’s the first thing people want to see,” he says of Dealey Plaza. “A mystery can become art”.
Even among those Dallasites who believe the simplest truth about the death of Kennedy, some still harbor feelings of disbelief that this could have happened here, at home. I recognize a sentiment that I have heard expressed on a larger scale in Iraq at the beginning of the sectarian brutality, and in Bosnia shortly after the civil war; somehow the facts alone do not explain the emotional and psychological impact of violence at home, the violation of the national family. Before we parted ways at the book depository, Pierce Allman told me, “What took place was not only shocking and bizarre and traumatic, but it had that air of unreality because this wasn’t happening in Europe, it wasn’t happening in the Middle East, it was happening in Dallas.”