Hundreds gathered on Nov. 2 to discuss the impact of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on Dallas. "Understanding Tragedy" brought together writers, politicians, journalists, religious leaders, scholars and others. KERA live-blogged the event. Here are highlights:
Update, 2:51 p.m.: There has been lots of praise today for J. Erik Jonsson, who became Dallas mayor shortly after Kennedy was assassinated. He worked to improve the image of the city in the years following the assassination.
“I applaud Erik Jonsson for his goals and guiding, weaving us so carefully through this labyrinth of trying to get out of this dark shame that we felt as a city,” said Gail Thomas, president and CEO of the Trinity Trust.
The Old Red Museum is opening an exhibit on Thursday that pays tribute to Jonsson. “Dream No Small Dreams: How Erik Jonsson Led Dallas From Tragedy to Triumph in the 1960s.”
Jonsson co-founded Texas Instruments, serving as its president and chairman of the board. As mayor, he launched “Goals for Dallas,” which established goals to improve the city. “As a result, public schools were air-conditioned, the public library system was expanded, and a new city hall was constructed. Jonsson was also integral in the founding of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and the University of Texas at Dallas.”
Update, 2:32 p.m.: Hugh Aynesworth was a reporter for The Dallas Morning News when Kennedy visited Dallas. He’s an expert on Kennedy’s death. During a panel on the JFK assassination and journalism, Aynesworth talked about tracking down conspiracy theorists in the years following the killing.
“I’ve had five people confess to me that they did it," Aynesworth said. "One said his daddy did it.”
One told Aynesworth that she saw Lyndon Johnson hand cash to Lee Harvey Oswald.
“Everybody wants to be somebody,” Aynesworth said. “We see it every day. Somebody does something horrible, something disasterous, something uncalled for, kills people, maims people. They want to be somebody and suddenly they are, not quite the way they [intended.] I’ve seen so many of these conspiracy theorists. They hate me. … Conspiracy agents say online that I’m a CIA agent.”
Update, 2:09 p.m.: Former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings talked about how she has worked with many Kennedy family members. “My takeaway is that everything old is new again,” Spellings said. “We still struggle with the same issues that we have for so long. We make incremental progress. … It’s civil rights. It’s good and evil in the world. It’s military conflict. Its’ educational opportunity. It’s the same darn thing."
Spellings added: "I guess I take a little comfort in that in the sense that we can look back on our history and learn from it and take lessons from it but my takeaway is that … we have some shared ideals around what we aspire to. And we’re still working on it. And the Texans in the crowd want to look forward, not back.”
Update, 1:57 p.m.: “Today is a little uncomfortable for me,” Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said during an afternoon breakout session that’s focusing on the JFK assassination and its impact on politics. “It feels like a group psychology session where we’re going to pay $200 an hour to the shrink at the end of this. … I want to be the person who says 'What we are going to do tomorrow?' I like history class, but what is the action that we’re going to be taking?”
But, Rawlings added, “When we deal with the future, we have to understand how to deal with the facts of the past.”
JFK was a man of paradoxes, and so is Dallas, Rawlings said.
“We’re a city of paradoxes," the mayor said. "We as a city have got to do a better job of understanding our complicated nature as we’re understanding President Kennedy’s. And leveraging the things that we like about ourselves and forgiving ourselves of what we don’t. … If we don’t, we’re going to be continuing living in the shadow as opposed to the bright light of the future.”
Rawlings later discussed Dallas improved following the assassination: “I’m not saying the assassination created this, but post assassination, marvelous things started happening in this country. Unbelievable things happened in the city of Dallas. Remember Kennedy spoke about a phrase we don’t hear any more. ‘The New Frontier.’ And that’s what took place for women. For African-Americans. For technology. For our stock market. For international travel. I don’t think any of us would want to be living in the early ‘60s today.”
Rawlings continued: “And I don’t think we went backwards. I think that New Frontier had a springboard. Maybe it was a painful birthing process in those next 10 years, but as I look at Dallas … and what we’ve become … We could have gone the other way, but the citizens of Dallas decided to step up to try to make this happen and so I think the story is a good story post [assassination] because of this sense that we need to break new ground … and not get calcified in our stratifications that I see so much throughout the country.”
Update, 1:17 p.m.: Dallas accepted the "gift" of JFK being killed in the city, said the keynote speaker, Lawrence Wright, an author, screenwriter and playwright who grew up in Dallas. He said that after Kennedy was killed, “Dallas became more tolerant, more intrinsic, more vigorous. Dallas became a better city for accepting the gift of Kennedy being killed in Dallas.”
Wright later added that before Kennedy was killed, the city of Dallas “was a roller coaster going off some crazy direction, really off the rails. There didn’t seem to be any force countering it, any force strong enough to stop it. Except one thing. It did change the city. … Humility was what we needed. And humility and humiliation are tied together, not just linguistically. In order to understand humility in a real way, one has to go through that kind of experience.”
Update, 1:05 p.m.: Katie Sherrod, a Fort Worth author, producer and commentator, reflected on JFK’s trip to Fort Worth earlier on Nov. 22, 1963, and how it compared to his Dallas visit:
There was a joyous breakfast that morning in Fort Worth at a hotel. Huge crowds waited to greet him. He was presented with a white Stetson.
“The joy in Fort Worth – there’s a poignancy of that joy that’s hard to watch,” Sherrod said, her voice filled with emotion. “It started with such joy and hope and it ended in such tragedy.”
Dallas, Sherrod said, wasn’t a city of hate – it was a “city of fear.”
“That permeated what was going on in Dallas and for all of the extremists," Sherrod said. "Fear always feeds the extremists. … Until we acknowledge that, hate grows out of fear. Until we deal with the things that frighten us and they are the same things that frightened the people of Dallas. The fear of the other. The fear of those who look different from me. Who believe differently from me. Who love differently from me. That feeds the extremists of today – and if we don’t acknowledge that, we’re fooling ourselves.”
Update, 12:52 p.m.: Kennedy showed that one could be “Catholic and fully American” at the same time, said Father Rudy Garcia, rector of the Cathedral Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Dallas.
“His love for those who are vulnerable – he set up the Peace Corps to help those in vulnerable situations. He believed in Americans being able to think beyond themselves and to help others and to go to their lands and assist,” Garcia said. “He really did believe in the social gospel. … He really was an advocate for peace.”
Update: 12:34 p.m.: Author Stephen Carter talked about the role that America played in 1963: “It’s important to put events in perspective. It’s important for us to recognize the continuing events of the Kennedy assassination on our lives, on our culture, on our religion, on the way news is covered and certainly on our politics as well. The assassination came at a moment when America was at its mightiest, when we were unrivaled in a sense economically, militarily there was this enormous confidence that there was nothing we couldn't do.”
Update, 12:13 p.m.: Jim Lehrer was stationed at Dallas Love Field, ready to cover the president’s arrival to Dallas. Soon after the president arrived, the newsman filed a report to his Dallas Times-Herald newsroom and hung around the terminal for lunch with other reporters.
“In the restaurant, a waitress screamed in tears. She said: ‘They shot Kennedy. And Connally, too.’ I immediately ran back outside into the hallway outside the restaurant."
"There was a payphone on the wall and I grabbed it and it’s a miracle when I think about it. I’m going through immediately to the city desk and I talked with the city editor. ‘Is it true?’ The city editor said ‘yes.’ The city editor said ‘Go by Parkland [Hospital].’”
“I hung up the phone and I was about to leave the phone and I picked it up again and I called my wife … ‘Have you heard?’ She said ‘yes.’ I said ‘Let’s get the hell out of here as soon as this is over. And she said ‘yes.’”
Update, 12:02 p.m.: Rev. Dr. Zan Holmes, pastor emeritus of St. Luke Community United Methodist Church in Dallas, talked about being in the Dallas Trade Mart on Nov. 22, 1963, waiting for the president to make an address. Kennedy never made it.
“I hadn’t seen so much food left over,” Holmes said. “Nobody could eat anything anymore. We did not need physical food in that moment. We needed soul food. Food to feed our needs. We were stripped of all pride, all pretention, all prejudice.”
There’s the tragedy of an assassination, but there’s also a tragedy of “unlearned lessons,” Holmes said.
“If we’ve not learned the lessons of any tragedy that we have experienced, then life’s teacher will send us back to repeat the course. And there’s no way to know that we have learned the lessons until our behavior changes. … To face this tragedy because we can’t fix it unless we face it. And God forgive us for not being good stewards of this tragedy. God does not want us to waste anything that happens to us. Good or bad. The challenge is how do we face it and look at it and come out of it better people, a better city, a better nation, a better world. That’s my sermon.”
Update, 11:45 a.m.: Margaret Spellings, president of the George W. Bush Foundation and former education secretary under President George W. Bush, talked about the JFK assassination through the lens of Catholicism.
“Our Catholic president was killed,” she said. “My family is devoutly Catholic and I remember seeing it through that lens, not just as a tragedy."
I remember feeling my parents were completely rattled and how as a child I felt so insecure to see adults for the first time lost by this event. … The No. 1 tourist attraction [in Dallas] is the Sixth Floor Museum with more than 500,000 people visiting [each year]. What does that say about people when they want to see the Sixth Floor Museum?”
Update, 11:42 a.m.: Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings hopes the world gets a better understanding of what Dallas is in 2013 through Saturday’s discussion, through citywide conversations over the past several months, through the upcoming Nov. 22 ceremony at Dealey Plaza, and other efforts. He hopes people realize that the city is no longer a "city of hate." Instead, he said, it's a "city of love."
“When I decided to run for mayor, I realized that the 50th [anniversary] would fall within the four years that I served,” Rawlings said. “Because I realized this would be an important day.”
Much thought has been put into how the city would officially mark the 50th anniversary, Rawlings said.
”We wanted to make sure that we did two things,” he said. “One, that we represented the authenticity of the city in the right manner. And that we did it in an honest manner where we didn’t throw things under the rug. At the same time, we felt this was our chance to say ‘thank you’ to President Kennedy in way that this city needed to do.”
The city also wants to use “history as a backdrop.”
“I don’t think we’ve ever gotten a chance to do that,” Rawlings said. “So focusing on the life and legacy of President Kennedy; bringing [historian] David McCullough; I will have a few comments. Pastor [Zan] Holmes will have a benediction. We wanted it to be simple and thoughtful but we wanted to salute what we feel was a great president. Through that process, a simple process I think, a cathartic experience has happened to all of us. … To me, the most important question is the ‘So What For Us Today?’ … What is our civic responsibility in dealing with this? I believe that somehow we’ve got to understand what extreme thoughts do to a group of people and how we can go off the rails of civilized behavior when that happens. …
“This notion of what hate and what love is. I think the poignancy of Love Field has always been there for me. I’m so happy to see the thousands of pieces of art saying that Dallas is now a city of love.”
Update, 11:28 a.m.: Gail Thomas, president and CEO of The Trinity Trust, talked about the importance of "owning the shadow of the assassination."
“This is hard for many of us,” Thomas said. “Dallas has not wanted to own the shadow of the assassination. In a sense we’ve been a city without a shadow."
Thomas continued: "I wrote a paper called ‘The City Without A Shadow’ and gave it on the eve of the 35th anniversary of the assassination and amazingly … most people that I spoke with did not want, it did not seem the right thing to do to talk about the assassination. ‘Let’s move on. Let’s build.’ And that’s what happened. Dallas built shiny buildings … they were mirrored glass buildings. We know that the freeways were built after the assassination. We sped up the building and the creative life of our city and yet the communal body of our city atrophied. People stopped coming downtown after 1963. ….
“Downtown, within 15 years after the assassination, was abandoned," Thomas said. "The office buildings, the old red brick office buildings were mothballed and began to be torn down. There was that sense of the heaviness was not acceptable and we had to build and soar and achieve and be a powerful city. …
“I have a close friend who said ‘Don’t talk about the darkness. Don’t talk about the shame.’ That’s been our problem. I feel we must own the shadow of this assassination. …
“The wound is always where the healing is," Thomas said. After the Sixth Floor [Museum] was opened, Dallas started coming back to life."
Update, 11:20 a.m.: Poet Nikky Finney read a poem about that fateful day, as well as future assassinations – or as she described it, “the decade of assassination that began with the one that took our collective breath away, but did not kill us, too.”
“The black and blue limousine, his head full of Massachusetts hair, always in place. Her raspberry pin dress with matching raspberry pillbox hat, later lost at Parkland and never found. ...
"The mystery black 20-something couple that no one has ever been able to find. Who was sitting there on that bench that day eating hamburgers and drinking out of a glass bottle of Coke that would later explode on the sidewalk as first they waited on the president to drive by and then they tore off running. …
“The beautiful sepia box of brown books in the Book Depository that shielded the hate and steadied the arm of the killer as he took aim through the window. What kinds of books were in those boxes? What did they say inside those boxes about American history about the science of the body or about black holes in space? …
“JFK. MLK. RFK. RFK. MLK. JFK. The music of standing up and fighting back has F and K notes peppered throughout. The president’s plane arriving with him alive and departing with him dead from Love Field. Understanding any tragedy means after you dry your eyes and you pay attention to everything. Even words, especially words, does anyone care as we understand tragedy that this is the best name for any airport in the world? …
“Does anybody dare say that understanding tragedy means that when you can look at the horrific things you see, you weep and you hold your breath, you remember names of airports … names of things that bind us to this earth? … You only begin to heal through courage, not fear.”
Update, 11:02 a.m.: Author Richard Rodriguez reflected on Nov. 22, 1963: “Something happened that day in America, some violence walked through the room and it walked into the room and none of us are the same. Because the president died. Now the roadsides are filled with homemade shrines because a boy was killed at that intersection. But that day, the most protected, the most prominent citizen shot down."
Rodriguez also addressed the Dallas nickname "City of Hate": "The legend was passed all the way to California about Texas, about this city, that this was a city of hate. I’ve always thought that to accuse a city of hate is unfair – [there were] to many people weeping, too much sadness to call it the city of hate.”
Rodriguez addressed how Texas -- and America -- doesn't focus on death and grief:
“What I’ve admired about Texas, what I’ve admired about America, as a Mexican-American, is your way to look away from the past if it is too painful. To look forward. … This is your gift to America."
Rodriguez added: “The only way we can make sense of the violence of tragedy is to chatter about conspiracy. Something large happened in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 under a blue sky, a cloudless sky in autumn and in all the years since we have not learned the language of grief and a language of remembrance. That’s why I’m here today.”
“We should dedicate a day to reflection and conservation about a day that changed everything in Dallas and throughout the world,” said Larry Allums, executive director of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. “We come together not as experts or as specialists but as fellow citizens and guests from other cities who have pondered his death.”
Attendees include Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, PBS journalist Jim Lehrer, poet Nikky Finney, author Lawrence Wright and author Stephen Carter.
The daylong symposium is happening at Gilley’s Dallas.
The event is being presented by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture and The Dallas Morning News. Program partners include KERA and the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.