Reporting from Dallas
On Tuesday, a few of the faithful will make a pilgrimage to Dealey Plaza to mark the moment at 12:30 p.m. on Nov. 22, 1963, when the Kennedy motorcade came gliding down Elm Street and shots rang out.
There will be no official ceremony. For most of the last 48 years, the city has let the anniversary slide past quietly, drawing no more attention to it than an aspiring actor would to a brutal facial scar.
That’s all about to change.
Dallas officials and the Sixth Floor Museum — located in the former Texas School Book Depository where Lee Harvey Oswald fired upon President Kennedy — have announced plans for a large 50th anniversary event in 2013, and are raising $2.2 million in public and private money to restore Dealey Plaza.
Although some conspiracy theorists fear they will be excluded, and traditionalists worry about change, many locals praise the effort, saying it’s time they shed their collective guilt as “the city that killed Kennedy.”
“Dallas is still scarred and wounded,” said Nicola Longford, executive director of the Sixth Floor Museum, which last year drew 330,000 visitors from 133 countries. “For Dallas, this is an opportunity to look back and not ignore it, to move through it and be inspired.”
In the past, city officials said they were honoring requests by the Kennedy family not to observe the anniversary in Dallas.
Those organizing the 50th anniversary event — many of whom, like Longford, are not from Dallas or were born after 1963 — say they are not capitalizing on memories of Camelot. They want to show the world how far “Big D,” the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the country, has come from its days as a conservative outpost of big-haired socialites, oil tycoons and cowboys.
“People arrive and expect to see people walking down the street in cowboy hats,” said Phillip Jones, head of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Instead, they find a city with the sixth-largest gay and lesbian population in the country, where 40% of the population is Hispanic and more than 20% is African American.”
Many residents walking the city’s streets this weekend said Dallas should embrace the anniversary. They included suburbanites, painters in the downtown arts district and hipsters in the Deep Ellum neighborhood.
“You can’t get away from it — it’s one of the things people associate with the city,” said Robert Escobar, 38, who lives in suburban Irving and was downtown with his family perusing holiday displays at the flagship Neiman Marcus store.
Escobar, a self-described “history nerd,” said he hoped the attention on the anniversary helped dispel the stigma that haunted Dallas, reinforced over time by the “Dallas” of J.R. Ewing.
“Dallas is really working to find its identity. I feel it grasping sometimes,” said Jeff Sprick, 33, of suburban Flower Mound as he shared a beer outside a vintage Dallas bar called Lee Harvey’s, which was also hosting the Assassination City Roller Derby after-party.
Pauline Medrano, who represents the Dealey Plaza area on the City Council, has watched the Dallas area diversify into what she calls a “blue county” that has an African American police chief, a Democratic mayor and the state’s only female sheriff, who also happens to be a lesbian.
Medrano was standing with her class from Sam Houston Elementary School when Kennedy’s motorcade drove by. Her older brother watched the motorcade on Main Street, and his photo hangs in the Sixth Floor Museum.
Medrano recalls the reputation Dallas had after the killing.
“Any time that we traveled anywhere and said we were from Dallas, you just saw the ‘Hmmm!’ ” she said.
Darwin Payne, then a reporter with the Dallas Times Herald, had run to Dealey Plaza to interview a teary Abraham Zapruder, who filmed his iconic footage of the assassination while standing at one of the pergolas, a spot that came to be known as Zapruder’s Perch. Payne said many Dallasites felt guilty because they had ignored or condoned other conflicts leading up to the assassination, including an attack by conservative activists on U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson.
“We were defensive at first. Then the realization came — we let the extreme right wing go on too long. We let them do too much,” said Payne, author of “Big D: Triumphs and Troubles of an American Supercity in the 20th Century.”
But in time, Payne said, “the attitude became, ‘We have to be tolerant of other viewpoints and not allow extremists to run rampant.’ ”
Lindalyn Adams is among those whose attitudes toward the assassination evolved through the years. Adams, 81, recalls how her physician husband reported seeing a comatose Oswald being wheeled into an elevator at Parkland Hospital after he had been shot by Jack Ruby. Adams long had trouble visiting the book depository, even after she was chosen to lead the Dallas Historical Commission.
“I was down in the area all the time and had never wanted to even look in the direction of that notorious building,” she said. “But I noticed how many people were visiting, at all hours.”
Adams went on to champion the founding of the Sixth Floor Museum in 1989, in part because of the success of Ford’s Theatre in Washington. Four years later, a ceremony was held on Nov. 22 to dedicate Dealey Plaza as a national historic landmark.
Tom Knock, an associate professor of history at Southern Methodist University, called the museum “a kind of penance” that, along with Oliver Stone’s 1991 film “JFK,” has “convinced a lot people that Dallas was not responsible” for the assassination, or at least, “did a lot to dim that memory.”
Work at Dealy Plaza is scheduled to start no later than October 2012, and planners hope to finish the summer before the anniversary. Improvements include fixing up the pergolas, making the grassy knoll accessible to handicapped people and adding historical signs.
Willis Winters, assistant director of planning, design and construction for the Dallas Park and Recreation Department, said the goal was to better serve those who already frequented the plaza.
“I don’t want to interpret for anyone the events, whether there was a conspiracy or not,” he said. “What I do want to achieve is that Dealey Plaza is in pristine condition so that when millions of people come there, they’re going to see a well-restored site — not peeling paint, broken light fixtures and broken-up sidewalks.”
Debra Conway, president of JFK Lancer, a group that has sponsored an annual conference on the assassination in Dallas for 16 years, said some members feared being excluded from official 50th anniversary events, but she believed it could be a watershed moment uniting Kennedy historians and the city.
“The city has realized the museum can work and fill the gap in the fence between the old Dallas and what Dallas wants to be,” she said.
Among those already planning to attend the 50th anniversary is Beverly Oliver Massegee, 65, who on Sunday gathered with about 50 other members of Conway’s group for a remembrance at Dealey Plaza. Some grew teary. Some could not look at the knoll. At 12:30 p.m., they paused for a moment of silence. A train rattled nearby and a breeze barely stirred the live oaks. Then Massegee, a well-known witness to the assassination, sang “Amazing Grace.”
In 1963, Massegee was a 17-year-old singer at the downtown Colony Club, an acquaintance of competing club owner Jack Ruby, when, she says, she strolled up Commerce Street to watch the motorcade pass. She wore a scarf over her blond bouffant, which earned her the nickname “babushka lady” and a cameo in “JFK.” She has returned to Dealey Plaza almost every year since.
She gazed out at the plaza, where tourists from Japan and Germany snapped photos. “To me, this is hallowed ground,” she said.