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Modern Dallas coming to grips with Kennedy assassination

A museum plans a 50th anniversary event in 2013 and a restoration of Dealey Plaza, part of an effort to shed for good any lingering collective guilt in the city.

November 22, 2011|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times
  • Tourists visit Dealey Plaza in Dallas, site of the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963.
Tourists visit Dealey Plaza in Dallas, site of the assassination of President… (Mark Ralston / AFP-Getty…)

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.

Photos: The assassination of President Kennedy

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.

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