On November 22nd, 1963, history changed in a split second. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, while his motorcade passed through the city’s central business sector as part of a two-day Texas tour in preparation for the 1964 presidential campaign.
I don’t remember much of this event, as I was a young child at the time, but I do recall my mother audibly weeping as she sat in front of the T.V. watching the news unfold. She was shocked and horrified upon learning that the President she adored had been murdered, and like the rest of the nation, she tensely waited to hear who was responsible for such a tragedy.
For many days, life in my family’s house was chaotic, with the television on 24-7, and my parents in a constant state of agitation and grief. There was a sense of despair and hopelessness that permeated our typically happy, cozy domicile. I noted, in my childlike perception, that the world around me grew heavier and darker during this period. In ensuing years, my understanding of the event and how it affected our nation grew in substance and clarity, and I marked it as the moment when America lost its innocence.
Flash forward to the present and the realization that it’s been fifty years since the assassination. Though much time has passed, for many, the memories of that day are still vivid. If asked, people can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.
Such recollections come to life during a visit to The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas. The museum, which was established in 1989 in the former Texas School Book Depository, examines the life, death and legacy of JFK through films, historic footage and hundreds of photographs and artifacts. Extensive information about the social history of mid-20th century Dallas both before and after the assassination, along with the history of Dealey Plaza, the Texas School Book Depository and Dallas’ JFK Memorial Plaza help supplement the museum’s collections.
Its permanent exhibit, “John F. Kennedy and the Memory of a Nation,” is located on the sixth floor of the building where significant evidence of a sniper was found. The sniper’s perch and storage space where a rifle was discovered remain preserved as they appeared on that fateful day. Also on display are cameras that captured Kennedy’s motorcade on film and a scale model of Dealey Plaza created by the FBI for the Warren Commission investigation. Audio guides are included with museum admission and help to assist visitors as they explore the exhibit. Inclusion of excerpts of historical radio broadcasts and the voices of reporters, police officers and witnesses to the assassination serve to enhance the experience. Ample space is dedicated to detailing the investigations that ensued after the assassination, including the various conspiracy theories espoused.
The event remains the most controversial murder mystery of the 20th century. Both history buffs and ordinary folks continue to be fascinated with the case even though the Justice Department formally closed its investigations in1988, concluding once again that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the murder of JFK. Over 350,000 people from around the world visit the museum each year, attesting to the fact that the grief this country experienced at the tragic loss of its 35th President was a response shared by many other nations.
It’s not just those who were alive at the time that make the pilgrimage to The Sixth Floor. A whole new generation has become intrigued by this historical event via films and movies and now, they too, are coming to the museum in droves.
Another important part of the institution’s collection is the Oral History Project, which preserves personal recollections regarding the life and death of JFK. These candid, informal interviews offer additional insight into the President’s legacy and the local and global impact of his assassination. It’s an incredibly diverse and rich archive of firsthand accounts, from individuals of all ages, including the memories of assassination eyewitnesses, law enforcement officials, community leaders, White House officials, social rights activists, filmmakers and researchers, Kennedy family acquaintances, 1960s schoolchildren, Parkland Memorial Hospital personnel, the museum’s founders and more than 100 members of the local, national and international news media. Such an accumulation of oral testament not only helps to preserve valuable information that might otherwise be lost, but also provides generations to come with a tangible and palpable connection to the past.
With the 50th anniversary imminent, the city of Dallas will hold an official observance to honor the life, legacy and leadership of JFK. It is the first designated event Dallas has ever held in the President’s memory and planners hope it will unite the city to remember Kennedy’s spirit, while ultimately looking forward into the “new frontier” he fervently communicated. “The 50th: Honoring the Memory of President John F. Kennedy” will include the tolling of church bells throughout the city, followed by a moment of silence.
There will be performances by musicians from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the U.S. Naval Academy Men’s Glee Club, along with special readings from JFK’s Presidential speeches by renowned Presidential historian David McCullough. Area religious leaders will offer prayers and a benediction and a ceremonial flyover will conclude the hour-long, outdoor program.
Though 5,000 people are expected to attend the invitation-only observance, the eyes of the world will be on Dallas that day, just as they were fifty years ago.
The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza: 214-747-6660 or www.jfk.org
Open daily except Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
Admission ranges from $13 (youth ages 6-8) to $16 (adults); seniors ($14); children 5 and under are free