On November 22, 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 television watching the news unfold. She was shocked and horrified upon learning that the President she and so many others 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. Even as a child I realized 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 both substance and clarity, and I marked it as the moment when America lost its innocence.
Flash forward to the present and the realization that we are about to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination. Though five decades have passed, the memories of that day are still vivid for many. If asked, those people would be able to tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. It’s these recollections that 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 helps supplement the museum’s extensive collections, as do the history of Dealey Plaza, the Texas School Book Depository and Dallas’ JFK Memorial Plaza. The museum’s 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 enhance the experience. Ample space is dedicated to detailing the investigations that ensued afterward, including the various conspiracy theories that continue to float around today. 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 shared by many around the world. It’s not just those who were alive at the time that make the pilgrimage to The Sixth Floor. New generations have been 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 of the assassination around the corner, 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.
For more information on The Sixth Floor Museum, visit them online at www.jfk.org.
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Deborah Stone is a features and travel writer, whose column has covered everything from Washington’s San Juan Islands to exotic Egypt. She enjoys writing about soft adventure experiences, cultural forays, wildlife encounters, romantic getaways and spa retreats. A long-time resident of the Seattle area, she is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association and the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association.