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Feb 27, 2006 6:34 pm

The Kennedy Memorial

A caveat before starting. Much of this is based on memory. While I double checked many of the facts, I could not confirm all of them. Feel free to post questions and corrections.

This Slate article on memorials to the Kennedy assassination brought back memories to me. The author, Witold Rybczynski, is highly critical of the Kennedy Memorial in Dallas, and he is critical of the lack of something appropriate at the site of the shooting itself. He has kinder words for the museum in the old School Book Depository, in part because the building itself has a sort of grace, in part because being on the spot, it evokes the assassination in a more chilling way.

Toward the end, Rybczynski makes this speculation:

We have become a culture more attuned to simulation than reality. Perhaps that's why the actual spot where Kennedy was assassinated is not commemorated at all.

I grew up in Dallas, and it was a lot more complicated than that.

Dallas was a deeply conservative city in the early 1960s. Moreover many people outside Texas perceived it as crude as well as conservative. This retrospective article from the Dallas Morning News gives a sense of it. In particular, the hostile reception that some Dallasites gave Adlai Stevenson not long before the assassination—which is described in that article— led some liberals to fear Kennedy visiting Dallas. Before Nov. 22 I think that was more fear of embarrassment than fear of violence.

After November 22, it seemed only natural to them, and maybe others, that Kennedy got killed in Dallas

At least one northern newspaper, I think it was the New York Times, called Dallas a “City of Hate.” William Manchester is his 1967 book Death of a President seconded that nomination.

That was unfair. It was as unfair as the crowds lining the streets could make it. The Kennedy mystique did not sell well in Dallas, but many people supported him and many others cheerfully stood with his supporters and waived at the president in the chilly sun that day.

However, the Dallas leadership never quite knew what to do with the intersection of the fact of the assassination with their image as not quite civilized. Within Texas, Dallas was considered the most sophisticated city, and its social and political leadership reveled in that. While Dallas was not eastern, Dallas looked east. By way of contrast, the slogan of Fort Worth, just 30 miles to the west was “Where the West begins.“

To many Dallasites the assassination and its aftermath seemed like two slaps in the face, first by fate and then by easterners. And to some extent Dallas leaders reacted like nouveau riche guests who get caught in a faux pas that they never quite figure out. At least that is the atmosphere that I remember.

Some of this played out in the planning for the Kennedy Memorial. Although the motorcade route was pretty nice looking, that part of downtown was more than a bit run down then, and some major urban renewal planning was underway. The city and county cooperated on finding a site adjacent to the old and new county court houses. It’s not far from the motorcade route, but it’s not on it either.

Even this was controversial. Some people thought that a memorial would simply be a reminder of bad times. Others, reflecting the more radical thinking of the time, argued that a more fitting memorial would be some sort of direct help for the poor. But the civic leaders went ahead with the Memorial, and, whatever one thinks of the results, Phillip Johnson, a man with connections both to the Kennedy family and to Texas, was a fine choice as designer.

Alas fine choices could not be left alone. A second controversy broke out over the decision to put a parking garage underneath the memorial. In many ways that was quite logical. The area did need more parking, and they were clearing that lot off anyway. The entrance was placed out of site from the Memorial, if I remember correctly. Still, the decision had a touch of lese majesty to it, and this was not a touch the occasion needed.

I was at the dedication. I was newly out of high school, working with an antiwar group. If my memory is correct, I doubled up my visit to the dedication with dropping my mother’s car off for repairs in Oak Cliff, not far from downtown, and with attending a new John Wayne movie. (There was much cognitive dissonance in being both anti-war and a John Wayne fan in 1970.)

It was a hot day. The trees planted around the memorial—if they had been planted yet at all--were little more than saplings. I was already sweaty after having walked and then ridden the bus over from Oak Cliff, by coincidence not that far from the Texas Theater, where Oswald was captured. I think I arrived after the ceremony began, and I know I was in the process of developing a sick headache.

I remember it as a small crowd. The architect, Phillip Johnson, spoke. His words about an “empty tomb” resonated with me on an emotional level. They also resonated because it seemed to me that the Dallas officials that I heard had little to say about Kennedy. I hope I am wrong, but at the time I was almost certain that Dallas County Judge Lew Sterrett managed to speak about this monument, and its role in urban renewal, without mentioning Kennedy at all. I said nothing, but I was terribly, deeply angry.

And so it goes.

Dallas has changed since then. This site, which has 1954 and 2004 pictures of the Dallas skyline (I could not find a skyline picture from the ‘60s), gives a glimpse at the rate of change. The sense of inferiority has long since left. The rapid growth keeps the region eternally nouveau riche, but there’s a pride in that. So new skylines are praised and old ones are forgotten.

Though I cannot claim to know Dallas well now, I’m pretty sure that any haunting from the assassination is long gone. That’s OK. There never should have been any blame before. Dallas did not hire Oswald—or any other assassins that I know of. The discomfort city leaders felt then elicits more pity from me now than the anger I felt that hot summer in 1970.

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