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A visitor to Dealey Plaza runs across Elm Street where the X marks the spot where the fatal shot hit President John F. Kennedy as his motorcade drove through Dealey Plaza in Dallas.

Mark Graham

At the Hotel Joule on Dallas's Main Street, Dan Rather is roaming the lobby with a small entourage. Like dozens of other journalists here right now, he's in town to cover the 50th anniversary of the assassination of president John F. Kennedy, and to put Dallas back in the spotlight.

Across Main Street, a nine-metre-tall sculpture of a bloodshot eyeball stares blankly back at the Joule, and you can't help but project a city's anxieties onto that strung-out pupil. Yes, this is the street where the Ku Klux Klan once marched, where the Kennedy motorcade passed before reaching Dealey Plaza, in the city whites fled to after desegregation. But we have changed! We're artsy and liberal. Stop judging us for what happened 50 years ago.

"McKinley was killed in Buffalo and Lincoln in Washington," says the avuncular Texan and former CBS news anchor, "but no city has had to overcome the stigma that Dallas had."

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The Kennedy curse is upon Dallas again, yet another chance for baby boomers, liberals, history buffs and conspiracy junkies to hold this city hostage to the early 1960s. More than any other place in the world, Dallas has been defined by a crime scene. Not even Sarajevo, the host to Archduke Ferdinand when he was assassinated in 1914, bears such a burden.

As the country prepares for its national catharsis on Nov. 22, Dallas residents must be wondering if there is an expiration date on contrition. Never mind that tens of thousands of locals lined up to see the crown prince of Camelot roll by in an open convertible. And the inconvenient fact that a communist named Lee Harvey Oswald, not a right-wing extremist, pulled the trigger. The tyranny of demographics keeps Dallas frozen in time. While 9/11 or Oklahoma City may trump the assassination for younger generations, the death of JFK is the personal touchstone for the bulk of an aging U.S. population.

Dallas did it, or it was at least an accomplice. It is the City of Hate, the unforgivable city.

At the bar of CBD Provisions, the city's restaurant of the moment, Phillip Jones, chief executive officer of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, delivers the same spiel he has doubtlessly given to many curious rubes like me, who land in his city with an overnight bag filled with stereotypes.

Dallas isn't what it was 50 years ago, the former Clinton administration official says. It's an island of political blue in a sea of Texan red. Its mayors are Democrats, and so are its judges. It has elected a Latino lesbian sheriff. There is a thriving Arts District, world-class museums. It's a convention hub that challenges Las Vegas and Atlanta.

"Like it or not, the assassination is part of our history," says Mr. Jones over blasts of Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem. "But we don't want to be defined by one event."

Up and down Main Street storefronts – and wherever the Kennedy motorcade went – there are children's drawings proclaiming Dallas to be the "City of Love." Driven by Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic artist Karen Blessen, the Love Project is meant to be proof her town has worked through the pain and shame of the past. Around 18,000 schoolchildren contributed.

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You can't blame the city for being defensive. While the country's tens of millions of baby boomers pick at the national wound, the majority of Dallasites may not be feeling anything. It's a young city where many people seem to have come from elsewhere – the Manhattan of the Southwest. Officials throw around the statistic that 95 per cent of residents neither lived here nor were born at the time of the assassination. Though it's difficult to substantiate the claim, it's not a Texas-sized boast, either. Census figures estimate that 65 per cent of Dallas residents are between the ages of 18 and 65, with a median age of 30.

To them, Mr. Kennedy's grisly end must feel as distant as Mr. McKinley's did to boomers.

An unexpected gift

Arguably, the death of Camelot was Dallas's greatest blessing. Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Lawrence Wright recently called the JFK assassination "a gift," a pivotal moment that allowed a young city to correct itself. "Dallas became a more open, tolerant and just city as a result," Mr. Wright says over the phone. "It learned the lesson of humility."

Before the assassination, Dallas didn't have much of an identity beyond its oil money and the right-wing radicals who ran the place. There was E.M. (Ted) Dealey, the Dallas Morning News publisher who told JFK at the White House that the nation needed a "man on horseback," not someone "riding Caroline's bicycle." There was the eccentric oil tycoon H.L. Hunt, widely believed at the time to be the world's richest man, bankrolling much of the vitriolic backlash against Mr. Kennedy's New Frontier.

Along with its radical eccentrics, Dallas also had a reputation for crossing the line. Hateful politics were one thing: There were John Birch Society members everywhere. Many Southern states bristled at the idea of Yankees telling them to desegregate.

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But these guys in Dallas played it rougher than most. They were literally up in people's faces.

Congressman Bruce Alger, the city's legendary Republican congressman, spearheaded a 1960 protest at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas against Lyndon Johnson, then the U.S. Senate majority leader, who was campaigning for the vice-presidency.

Considered by some to be the spiritual forefather of the Tea Party-affiliated Republican Senator Ted Cruz, Mr. Alger held a placard that said, "LBJ Sold Out to Yankee Socialists." The rally, supported by tony women from North Dallas, grew confrontational, and a protester spat on Lady Bird Johnson. Lady Bird later wrote that she had never feared for her life so much as in those moments. One of the protesters snatched her gloves and pitched them into the gutter.

A month before the assassination, another surreal attack: While visiting Dallas, Mr. Kennedy's ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, encountered the virulent local opposition to the UN and was hit on the head by a woman carrying a "Down with the UN" picket.

On the day of the assassination, the Dallas Morning News printed a full-page advertisement, bordered in black, accusing Kennedy of being a Communist stooge. The ad provoked Mr. Kennedy's ominous remark about his fatal visit: "We're heading into nut country today."

Hours after the assassination, the Dallas-did-it theory was front of mind. Jacqueline Kennedy was still wearing that pink Chanel knock-off dress, soaked with her husband's blood, at Parkland Memorial Hospital when nurses asked if she needed help cleaning up. "Absolutely not," she said. "I want the world to see what Dallas has done to my husband."

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Afterward, people wrote letters to the city. Some were empathetic, others called for more transparency and criticized the way police made Mr. Oswald vulnerable to his killer, strip-club owner Jack Ruby.

But for many letter writers, Dallas was not the scene of the crime – it was a culprit. "I think it would be fitting for you to have the name of Dallas changed to DISGRACE, Texas," wrote one.

"What amazes me is how personally people took the event," says Jeffrey A. Engle, the director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, sitting in the DeGolyer Library next to a collection of pristinely kept letters. "I'm amazed that so many people felt a need to write about their own personal connection to it from around the world."

That personal connection would be felt when Dallasites travelled and got cold-shouldered or insulted. Waiters wouldn't serve them. People wouldn't give them directions. They were stigmatized. Not only was it bad for city morale, it might be bad for business, always a chief concern for the Big D. The city needed to recreate itself.

Within months, it had begun to do just that.

When Dallas became 'Dallas'

As young newspaperman, Darwin Payne chased the assassination story for the now defunct Dallas Times Herald. He interviewed a teary Abraham Zapruder, the balding, middle-aged man who had filmed Mr. Kennedy being shot. Despite Mr. Payne's entreaties to hand over the footage, Mr. Zapruder gave it to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

A year later, Mr. Payne wrote an anniversary piece that examined the city in the aftermath of the assassination. "I found that in the first nine months of 1964, business activity had been much higher than it had been for the previous nine months," he said at Peggy Sue's, a barbecue joint across from the campus of SMU. "They were worried that economic problems would happen, but they didn't."

Mr. Payne, who later became a historian and SMU journalism professor, said the city's radical right-wing groups went underground after the shooting. The Dallas Morning News transitioned to a new generation of leadership. The mayor, Democrat Earle Cabell, ran for Congress in order to oust Mr. Alger, and the Morning News turned on its former Republican ally.

In 1963, there were nine Democratic organizations in Dallas; the following year, 21 new ones were formed. In the 1964 state election, all Republican candidates from the Dallas area were swept out in favour of Democrats. "It's as if Dallas, embarrassed by what had happened and having sown such negativism, wanted to say, Look, we loved the president," Mr. Payne recalls.

J. Erik Jonsson, the co-founder of Texas Instruments who was elected mayor of Dallas in 1964, ushered in a civic renewal program that included air-conditioning for public schools, a public library system and a new city hall designed by I.M. Pei.

The crowning moment, however, was Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, a partnership of two rival cities that would create the largest airport in the world when it opened in 1973 with the sonic boom of a Concorde jet.

"Without the assassination, it never would have happened," Mr. Payne says.

In the early sixties, Fort Worth and Dallas were cross-town rivals. They had their own separate airfields and just kept making them bigger. But Mr. Jonsson wanted his city to be worldly and, with the help of the federal government, pushed the project forward.

In the seventies, Dallas's reputation diversified, for better or worse. There was the rise of the Dallas Cowboys – "America's team" – a bold bit of branding for the city, given its reputation elsewhere. And then came Dallas, the TV show that made the world forget about Dealey Plaza.

Dallasites might complain that they would never wear cowboys boots like the Ewings – that's more Fort Worth – but no one bothered them much about the assassination any more. The city was moving on. The bullet that killed J.R. was a more riveting topic.

'People just stand and stare'

Long before Tony Tasset's giant eyeball sculpture fixed its sights on Main Street, Dallas was a big booster of art and design. There is a long tradition of support for avant-garde work in the area. When the Kennedys arrived at the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth in 1963, local bigwigs installed works by Thomas Eakins and Franz Kline and sculptures by Henry Moore and Pablo Picasso in the presidential suite.

After the assassination, the Dallas skyline became a tabula rasa for I.M. Pei, who designed a symphony centre and what is now called the First Interstate Bank Tower, along with the City Hall.

Today, the Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University has one of the largest collections of Spanish works outside Spain. Forbes magazine recently raved about the Dallas Art Fair, calling it a welcome complement to the preening pretensions of New York and Basel.

At the Dallas Museum of Art, I am directed by various women with thick, black eyeliner to the office of Maxwell Anderson, its director. That day, Mr. Anderson was set to announce that an anonymous donor had given $9-million to keep attendance free. The museum, which features 22,000 works, received $17-million earlier this year to establish an endowment that would bolster the museum's collections of European art from before 1700.

The former director of New York's Whitney Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario, Mr. Anderson says Dallas's transformation into an arts hub is mix of recent self-made fortunes and booming population. "There is a concomitant growth spurt, an energy level and drive, entrepreneurial quality and civic-mindedness that is a great cocktail," he says.

AT&T Stadium, where the National Football League's Dallas Cowboys play, is the biggest surprise. The $1-billion-plus leviathan looms over the suburb of Arlington; as fans walk in, they are not greeted by a huge bust of the late, legendary coach Tom Landry. Instead they are greeted by Sky Mirror, a $10-million Anish Kapoor sculpture. It's a 21-tonne, 10.6-metre-diameter stainless-steel disc that reflects the eastern sky on its concave side and Cowboy fans on the stadium side. There is a pool below it.

"People just stand and stare," says Phil Whitfield, the stadium's art ambassador, who oversees the collection of more than a dozen mostly abstract murals and installations.

A Dallas resident his whole life, Mr. Whitfield remembers going to see Kennedy's motorcade on Nov. 22, 1963. "I was three years old and the crowds were eight people deep, so I didn't get a chance to see him."

He says Dallas back then was a city where an African-American kid had to be careful at night; where he had to be home by a certain hour or else he'd invite trouble from the police or others.

Asked how the city has changed, he paused in the way people do when talking about something that happened a long time ago.

"Most of those people have died out," he says.

The 'rememberers'

In spite of all the civic improvement in Dallas, Dealey Plaza, named after the newspaper family whose scion despised the Kennedys, isn't much to look at. If there weren't X's marking the spots on Elm Street where the bullets hit the president, this patch of green and cement could be an egress to any major highway. While the "grassy knoll" looms large in the national imagination, it is a minor patch of green.

Lurking above Dealey Plaza in the infamous book depository is the Sixth Floor Museum. Itself stigmatized, the building has struggled with the weight of its history. It switched hands several times after the assassination. Some of the city's leading figures, including Tom Landry, Mary Kay and Ross Perot, created a group called Dallas Onward, hoping to raise enough money to buy the building and tear it down.

But in 1979, Dallas County purchased it, hoping one day it would be a museum to commemorate the event and the era. In 1989, the Sixth Floor Museum opened, which for many brought closure to a difficult chapter. This museum, unlike others around town, can't count on the largesse of patrons; instead, it relies on proceeds from ticket sales. Around 350,000 visitors come though each year.

The museum is a place of sacred silences and religious attention. On a precious visit seven years ago, I saw teenagers weeping. It's also exhaustingly extensive. You can stand by the blacked-out window from which Mr. Oswald took aim at the motorcade; there is also an engaging panorama of the Kennedy era, riveting oral histories of Nov. 22 and a collection of some 40,000 items related to the assassination.

These days, the demographics of its visitors are changing, says museum executive director Nicola Longford. Now, 60 per cent of its guests are "non-rememberers" – people who were not alive during the assassination.

"It's surprising how many people don't know who President Kennedy was or that he even died here in Dallas," she says. "But once they come inside, it becomes a mystery to them, a treasure hunt. They don't want all the answers provided to them, but they're able to be critical thinkers and understand the power of this place."

Stephen Fagin, the museum's associate curator, says that part of its power is its ability to bridge people's different experiences of catastrophe. Using his own family as an example, for him the country's signal national tragedy was the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle; for his brother it was the Oklahoma City bombing; for his mother, the assassination. JFK isn't just about JFK. It's about sharing catharsis.

Mr. Fagin is also fascinated by the difference in how generations approach the museum. "You have rememberers who are far more inclined to reflect on their own lives and this moment that defined a generation," he said.

"Younger people are interested in it as an ongoing murder mystery with lingering questions. They explore the plaza, point to the building and think about bullet trajectories and evidence."

Which would be a great growth opportunity for the Conspiracy Museum, located around the corner. I had visited the place seven years ago and planned a return, but discovered it had been turned into a Quiznos.

'Everyone loves a mystery'

At a class on JFK at Southern Methodist University outside of Dallas, Camelot's toothy allure isn't the draw. For these Gen Yers, it's the grit and fog of the assassination itself: the lingering contradictions of the crime scenes, the frothy YouTube videos that allege conspiracy, and the perplexing motivations of Lee Harvey Oswald. Or, as he's referred to several times in class by students, "Ozzie."

"Everyone loves a mystery," said the class's lecturer, Tom Stone (no relation to Oliver), who has been teaching variations of this course for 20 years. "It's the crime of the century."

Or, more accurately, the past century. The course, "Teaching JFK to Gen Y," is billed as an opportunity to "experience the zeitgeist of that turbulent time." Many of the students said they went into the course knowing little about the 35th president, except the mistresses he took in the White House, the way in which he was killed and maybe the Bay of Pigs fiasco. But they bore into the grassy knoll with great relish. It's Kennedy CSI.

Every detail is impressively micro-examined. Why on earth would Mr. Oswald go to Dallas, an odd place for a communist sympathizer if there ever were one? (To get away from his mother? posits Prof. Stone impishly.) And could that iconic photo of Mr. Oswald holding that 6.5-mm Carcano rifle have been doctored or, worse, faked? They study everything from Don Delillo's novel Libra to the Oliver Stone potboiler JFK.

"I've always been into conspiracies," said Kevin, 19, from Houston. The Sixth Floor Museum piqued his interest and also resonated with another national cataclysm. "For my own life, the closest thing was 9/11."

For many of these students, 9/11 is their 11/22. They want to bridge the trauma of the Dealey Plaza with the World Trade Center and understand why their parents felt the event was so pivotal.

Another student, Jackie Leylegian, was graced with a particle of Camelot dust. Born a week after the death of Jacqueline Kennedy, she was named after America's most glamorous first lady. Though she, too, said she still didn't know many specifics about the event, she wanted to learn more. Her grandmother in Montreal has shelves stacked with JFK books.

"I feel blessed to be taking a course near Dallas," she says. "Where it all happened."

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