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50 years after fatal day, Dallas mourns JFK

In Dealey Plaza, where President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, a somber crowd gathers under rainy skies to honor the fallen leader.

November 22, 2013|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske
  • People in the audience pause for the final prayer during a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
People in the audience pause for the final prayer during a ceremony marking… (LM Otero / Associated Press )

DALLAS — It was, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said, as if the sky were weeping too.

On a cold and rainy day, thousands gathered in downtown Dallas' Dealey Plaza to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

The weather reminded those who were in Dallas 50 years ago of that day, also a Friday, which had dawned overcast but cleared to gleaming sunshine in time for Kennedy's arrival.

On Friday, the skies never cleared.

Rawlings unveiled a monument honoring Kennedy, engraved with words taken from the speech he was to have delivered at the Trade Mart. That's where the presidential motorcade was headed Nov. 22, 1963, when gunshots were fired in Dealey Plaza. The quotation ends: "For as was written long ago, 'Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.'"

The ceremony Friday morning was the city's first official observance of the anniversary. Thousands of people gathered in the grassy triangular expanse in Dealey Plaza for the hourlong ceremony, many of them members of the public who won tickets through a lottery. Many more watched from surrounding streets.

Across the nation, flags flew at half-staff, and visitors to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where Kennedy is buried, brought flowers, letters and mementos to the grave site.

But the focus Friday was on Dallas, where dignitaries included Texas officials as well as Prince Albert of Monaco, his wife and Marie Tippit, the widow of the police officer killed by assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.

On a stage erected on the plaza, the ceremony played out in front of a huge Kennedy portrait suspended from a crane. Bagpipers processed up Elm Street and into the plaza, past the former Texas School Book Depository, where Oswald built his sniper's nest, and over the spot in the street where Kennedy was shot.

Rawlings recalled the day of the murder. He remembered being called into his school gym, told the terrible news and sent home.

"We watched the nightmarish reality that in our front yard our president had been taken from us, taken from his family, taken from the world," he said.

But Rawlings also emphasized that the place once known as "the city that killed Kennedy" had changed.

"Today we, the people of Dallas, honor the life, legacy and leadership of the man who called us to think not of our own interests, but of our country's. We give thanks for his life and service," Rawlings said, adding, "We offer our condolences to his family — to his daughter, Caroline, especially — on this difficult day."

The day before, Dealey Plaza had taken on an almost carnival atmosphere as hundreds milled about, including an Elvis impersonator and conspiracy theorists who doubt that Oswald acted alone. One held a sign saying, "LBJ did it." But on Friday, the mood was as somber as the gray skies.

A moment of silence was held at 12:30 p.m., the time Kennedy was shot. Bells tolled downtown. Some in the crowd gazed up to the book depository's sixth floor. Protesters wearing yellow T-shirts that said "50 years in denial is enough" pointed to the grassy knoll. Others hugged loved ones, bowed their heads and wept.

Afterward, historian David McCullough, a friend of the Kennedy family, shared readings from some of Kennedy's landmark speeches. "His words changed lives," McCullough said. "His words changed history."

In closing, McCullough exhorted the crowd to take Kennedy's powerful words to heart.

"He had high hopes and so do we. On we go!" he said.

Among those in attendance were some eyewitnesses to the assassination, including Pierce Allman.

Allman, 79, runs a Dallas real estate and marketing firm, and said he wanted to be at Friday's ceremony to witness history, just as he did 50 years ago. He found the moment of silence "especially poignant."

"I kept contrasting the slow tolling of the bells to the rapid sound of the shots" that day, he said. "I was glad I was here."

Drew Carney, 25, a high school history teacher, traveled from his hometown of Toronto. He had never been to Dallas before, and as he walked through downtown, he noticed buildings plastered with children's drawings about love, a nonprofit group's effort to combat the city's bad reputation in the wake of the assassination.

Carney, a fan of Kennedy and McCullough, appreciated the city's tribute. "It's a good thing, a healing thing, good for the morale of the city," he said.

Stephen Gately, 32, of Tampa, Fla., was also among the ticket-holders. He is a Republican, and works for a Republican state legislator, but said he had long appreciated Kennedy and his legacy.

"That certainly transcends politics," he said.

More events were planned in town. On Friday night, Dallas police were expected to honor Officer J.D. Tippit. On Saturday, the Dallas Symphony will perform a piece written for the anniversary. A panel of eyewitnesses, including Allman, will discuss the tragedy.

Dallas resident Kate Henry, 23, who stood with others watching from beyond the barricades, said she was proud of her city.

"We're strong enough and proud enough to memorialize our fallen president instead of sweeping it under the rug," the aspiring actress said.

After the ceremony ended, she and others remained on Elm Street, standing together in the rain.

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