For the past half century, the city of Dallas, Texas has been defined by three elements: the Dallas Cowboys, the television show “Dallas” and the assassination of the country’s 35th president, John F. Kennedy. I’ve always admired Kennedy. He was a true military hero who barely survived World War II. He was witty and charming with a strong vision for America’s future. In his inaugural address, he uttered the most inspirational words I’ve ever heard: “And so, my fellow, Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” It was a challenge for a country that – although already accustomed to them – to do more. It’s certainly something this nation, filled with self-righteous individuals, needs today. It’s why I vote regularly and speak out when I see injustice. If you want your society to work for you properly, you have to be willing to do something right for it.
Several years ago, while working my first job as a package clerk at a nearby grocery store, a woman from California asked me how I felt about the city of Dallas. It was a curious question. But, it was her first trip to Texas, and she just wanted to know. She mentioned that, in her native California in 1963, her fellow citizens immediately came to loathe the city of my birth and the entire state of Texas. She saw people hurtle rocks and bottles at a couple of cars that bore Texas license plates. Then, I told her I was only 17 days old on the day Kennedy died and that my mother had seen the presidential motorcade race by the garage apartment where we lived on its way to Parkland Hospital – though at the time, she had no idea what had just transpired. She was nursing me and had sat down to watch “As the World Turns” – a program she’d become addicted to while on maternity leave – and just happened to hear the sirens in the distance; blaring through the open bathroom window. Not until she returned to the front room to resume watching her show and Walter Cronkite interrupted did everything change.
The California woman – a blonde in her early 40s – froze. The event became personal again.
It’s a good thing for a city to be associated with a great sports team. After the horror of the Kennedy assassination, the Dallas Cowboys had the burden of transforming the city into “America’s team.” Its image as a real estate and oil metropolis were certified in “Dallas,” one of the cheesiest programs the American entertainment community has ever produced. Fortunately, I know the real Dallas, and I’m happy to announce it’s not that bad. This place of nearly 2 million people is a blue enclave in a red state. The city boasts a non-White majority population that still trends Democratic in presidential elections. In 1995, Dallas elected Ron Kirk as mayor, the first Black to hold that office. In 2004, Dallas County elected Lupe Valdez as its first Hispanic, female and openly gay or lesbian sheriff. Two years later it elected Craig Watkins as its first Black district attorney. There are two schools named after Kennedy here: Kennedy-Curry Middle School and John F. Kennedy Learning Center. It’s a city with a diverse population and an international reach. Yes, it boasts its share of crackpots. Show me a city this size that doesn’t and I’ll show you a pile of rocks.
When word about Kennedy’s death spread throughout my father’s workplace, a printing company on the edge of downtown, an older man groused that Kennedy deserved to be shot because he was Catholic. My father, then in his early 30s and unafraid to speak his mind, snapped back, “You son of a bitch! He was our president!”
Several years ago, while working as a contractor for a government agency, my company’s liaison – a hard-right Republican who almost got teary-eyed whenever he mentioned Ronald Reagan’s name – unexpectedly commented that the Kennedy assassination was “one of the best days in this country’s history.” The three of us standing there with him – my supervisor, a coworker and me – were literally startled. The statement had come out of nowhere.
Even I who despised Ronald Reagan got scared when he was shot in 1981. “No!” I announced to the man, while standing beside my supervisor. “The day Kennedy was shot was one of the worst days this country has ever experienced!” I reiterated how, on the day Reagan fell victim to a crazed gunman, I was glued to the television. My mother arrived home from work and sat down to watch a local broadcast – and began to cry. It had only been a little more than 17 years since Kennedy’s death, and the nightmare had been rejuvenated.
I stormed out of my supervisor’s office, genuinely pissed off, and returned to my desk. The man, twice my size with an equally imposing voice, followed me and meekly apologized.
Every major metropolitan area has its extremists; its cache of lunatics who are filled with vile against anyone and anything they don’t like. There were certainly plenty of them in Dallas in the early 1960s. But, the nation was at the start of a cultural tumult, and such types filled a lot of cities, especially in the Deep South. It had been a century since the start of the Civil War, and many White Southerners didn’t like the thought of Negroes gaining equality. When Lyndon Johnson and his wife, Claudia (whom Lyndon affectionately dubbed “Lady Bird”), visited Dallas in September of 1960, they were met, in part, by a hostile crowd. Although a native Texan and then-Senate majority leader, Johnson was vilified by some folks as duplicitous in a liberal Yankee agenda (e.g. civil rights for Negroes) by agreeing to run on the Kennedy ticket. As the Johnsons exited a downtown theatre, a young woman lunged forward and snatched Mrs. Johnson’s white gloves from her dainty hands. Lady Bird’s face turned as white as the gloves that ended up in a sewer. The senator hustled his wife into a waiting car and hurtled an invective back towards the angry crowd.
When Kennedy died, it had been 13 years since someone made a concerted attempt to assassinate a sitting U.S. president; 18 years since one had died in office; and 62 years since one had been killed. At age 43, Kennedy was the youngest man ever elected to the U.S. presidency, the first born in the 20th century – and the last to die in office. His death shocked the nation – and the world – into a new, more brutal reality. Few could fathom such evil in those days. Kennedy’s vision for a better nation held so much hope. That a lone gunman with a Napoleonic complex could possibly destroy the beautiful stones of Camelot with three bolts of lead hadn’t entered the public conscious.
When I was a senior in high school, an English teacher told me everything that erupted in the 1960s had been brewing the previous decade; a time many still view through a delicate stained glass window. Historians and various cultural observers now agree that Kennedy’s assassination is when the 1960s actually began. The moment a bullet pulverized the skull of the handsome, young president and compelled his beautiful, glamorous wife to clamber onto the back of the limousine to gather the bloody fragments – like a tomboy collecting rocks – is when that stained glass window shattered. The patriotism of the 1940s and the economic security of the 1950s collapsed into the reality of a cold, dispassionate universe. As a whole, Americans realized the nation hadn’t lived up to its ideals of equality and freedom for all. The Watergate scandal then seemed to confirm things aren’t always how they seem, and we needed to start questioning authority.
What’s often ignored about Kennedy’s visit to Texas is the overwhelming joy with which he and his wife, Jacqueline, were greeted. When the couple arrived in neighboring Fort Worth late on November 21, a large, enthusiastic group had gathered in the rain to see them. As the motorcade cruised through downtown Dallas on that bright, sunny Friday afternoon, hundreds of people lined the streets; waving and cheering. At one point, Nellie Connally, the wife of Texas governor John Connally, turned to the president and gleefully pointed out that Dallas enjoyed the First Couple’s presence. They did; they really did.
Several years ago someone painted a white X in the middle of Elm Street, identifying the exact spot where Kennedy was hit. Somehow that dubious insignia withstood rain, sleet, triple-digit temperatures and Dallas drivers. Recently, however, the city paved over it as part of a concerted infrastructure improvement plan. But, it was also a symbolic move. No, Dallas can’t just get over what happened here on this day five decades ago; pretending it was nothing more than a rough afternoon. Yes, we grieve today about one of the most tragic events of the 20th century. That’s the honorable thing to do. But, we also need to consider Kennedy’s view of a better world – and then move forward. We have no other choice.