Just months after he won the job of Dallas mayor in 2011, Mike Rawlings got a call from a west coast newspaper asking what he planned to do about the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.
“I said, ‘It’s two years away,’” Rawlings recalls. “I knew that this day would come, and the whole world would be watching us. It would be important to mark that day in the right way. The focus should be not on Dallas, not on the assassination, but really on the legacy of President Kennedy.”
Thus, although it will take place just a few yards from the spot where John F. Kennedy was shot in the head and killed on Nov. 22, 1963, the city’s official memorial is likely to contain not a word about the assassination. Instead, Rawlings will speak about Kennedy’s presidency on Nov. 22 at Dealey Plaza to about 5,000 people—local officials, media, financial contributors to the event, and about 3,700 individuals who won tickets through a lottery and have been vetted by the Dallas Police Department. Historian David McCullough will read from Kennedy’s speeches, and the U.S. Naval Academy Men’s Glee Club will sing in what Rawlings characterizes as “a serious, respectful, less-is-more ceremony.” There will be prayers, a moment of silence, bagpipes and a military flyover.
The memorial is a delicate matter for Dallas, whose “city of hate” reputation lingered for many years after the assassination, fading only after the “Dallas” TV show began airing in the late ‘70s, giving the world something else to associate with the city.
The 50th anniversary has revived the stigma of ‘63. Both Rawlings and Ruth Altshuler, the event’s chairwoman, have been flooded with media calls bringing up the “city of hate” business.
“One of them asked me, ‘Is this your idea of a redemption?’” says Altshuler, a philanthropist universally loved in Dallas whose hand-written letters are on track to raise $3 million to stage the event. “I’m so tired of that. This program is going to be first-rate. We want Dallas to look good.”
So do the volunteers with the Dallas Love Project who have been plastering Dallas—including Parkland Memorial Hospital, where Kennedy was pronounced dead—with thousands of posters proclaiming Dallas the city of love. Much of the poster art comes from local schools, created by students who, obviously, weren’t around in 1963, nor were they aware of the reputation they’re trying to dispel.
The virulent right-wing resistance to Kennedy’s Dallas visit has been widely chronicled in books about the assassination, and visitors to the city can find it on the walls of the Sixth Floor Museum, which tells the story of the slaying on the very floor of the former Texas Schoolbook Depository from which Lee Harvey Oswald shot the president.
The museum displays the full-page ad in the Nov. 22, 1963 Dallas Morning News that began, “Welcome Mr. Kennedy to Dallas… a city that rejected your philosophy and policies in 1960 and will do so again in 1964—even more emphatically than before.” The ad went on to decry Kennedy’s foreign policy and an administration it called “soft on Communists.” It was sponsored by something called the American Fact-Finding Committee, chaired by ring-wing organizer Bernard Weissman.
With the approach of the assassination’s 50th anniversary, the Sixth Floor Museum has been slammed with so many visitors that it’s often difficult to get a good view of the documents. The museum’s own observance of the anniversary has been low-key: an exhibit of historical photographs of U.S. presidents and a series of panel discussions and signings for various books about JFK.
Virtually the entire city of Dallas seems to be involved in planning one memorial observance or another. The Dallas Symphony has scheduled a memorial concert featuring a work commissioned in Kennedy’s honor. Inside Reunion Tower, the lighted revolving ball that defines the skyline, a new interactive exhibit features a short film on the assassination from the perspective of Secret Service Agent Clinton J. Hill, the agent who climbed onto the car carrying Kennedy after he was shot. A bicycle group has planned a riding tour in the footsteps of Oswald. Banks, shopping centers and churches all over Dallas are putting up Kennedy exhibits.
Meanwhile, 30 miles away in Fort Worth, an opera has been commissioned based on the morning of Nov. 22 that Kennedy spent in Fort Worth before flying to Dallas, and a theater is producing a new play about Oswald’s interrogation.
The official Dealey Plaza event, expected to be an hour or less long, will be encased in heavy security, according to Altshuler. That’s a good thing, says Hugh Aynesworth, who covered the assassination for the Morning News and has written a book about it: November 22, 1963: Witness to History. At a recent symposium, Aynesworth speculated that conspiracy theorists would try to hijack the event: “To be arrested on that day by the Dallas Police. Wouldn’t that be a bonus to promote even the most ridiculous conspiracy tales?”
Having heard about the heavy security, Aynesworth says that he doubts protests will be tolerated. Still, those of varying opinions are free to gather around the four or five big screens that the city plans to install around town so that people without tickets can watch the service live. Organizers have no idea how many might want to do that.
“You know, 95 percent of the people who live here now weren’t alive then,” Rawlings says. “Dallas is a very different city today than 50 years ago.”