November 22, 1963, started out as a drizzly day in Dallas, but quickly turned bright and clear. The mood of spectators lining downtown streets matched the sunny weather as crowds cheered the passing motorcade of President John F. Kennedy. But at 12:30 p.m., shots rang out, steering history in a startling new direction.
Much like the shocking attacks of 9/11 decades later, the Kennedy assassination cloaked the nation in sorrow and anxiety. The tragedy and its aftermath are “ingrained in the collective memory of this country,” noted Jeffrey A. Engel, the founding director of SMU’s Center for Presidential History and a senior fellow with the Tower Center for Political Studies, during the program “JFK, History and the Politics of Memory,” held at The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza February 19.
Panelist Edward T. Linenthal, professor of history at the University of Indiana Bloomington and editor of the Journal of American History, acknowledged the “power of 50th anniversaries.” “They are often the last time adults who were seared by it will get to put their eyewitness imprint on the event,” he said.
Five decades later, the story of that day is still being written, commented panelist Timothy Naftali, a senior research fellow with the New America Foundation’s National Security Studies program and a former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library. “Nothing is ever settled in history,” he said, “because there is always new evidence and always new questions.”
Scholarly discourse on the fluid nature of history served as an appropriate launching point for a yearlong observance of the 50th anniversary of the assassination. Working in concert with the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum and The Sixth Floor Museum, SMU will present a series of public programs examining Kennedy’s legacy. This milestone year provides an unprecedented opportunity to “join together to study, discuss and ultimately understand the event and what it continues to mean for the city, the country and the world,” Engel said.
REMEMBRANCE AND COMMEMORATION
Shaping the University’s observance is the Tower Center Working Group on Remembrance and Commemoration: The Life and Legacy of JFK, a special committee of distinguished members of the SMU community. Dennis Simon, SMU associate professor of political science, a fellow of the Tower Center and director of its program on American politics, leads the interdisciplinary committee. He spearheads a summer workshop on “Teaching JFK and Civil Rights,” in collaboration with Sharron Conrad, associate director of education and public programs for the Sixth Floor Musuem.
Alan Lowe, director of the Bush Library and Museum, and Engel also are key members of the group.
Also lending their expertise:
- William Bridge, associate professor, Dedman School of Law.
- Lee Cullum ’61, journalist and Tower Center fellow
- Kenneth Hamilton, associate professor of history and director of ethnic studies, Dedman College
- James Hollifield, professor of political science and Arnold Fellow of International Political Economy, Dedman College; director of the Tower Center; and chair of the Sixth Floor Museum Board
- Rita Kirk, director of SMU’s Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility and a professor in the Division of Communication Studies, Meadows School of the Arts
- Thomas Knock, associate professor of history, Dedman College, and member of the board of trustees of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library
- Ruth Morgan, former SMU provost and professor emerita of political science
- Daniel Orlovsky, professor of history and SMU’s George A. Bouhe Research Fellow in Russian Studies, Dedman College
- Tom Stone, senior English lecturer, Dedman College
The University’s participation in the anniversary commemoration “helps fulfill the Tower Center’s mission to better understand American political change and advance presidential scholarship,” Hollifield said.
And, it builds on a decades-long commitment by the SMU community to preserve and study the vestiges of a painful turning point for the city and the nation.
The infamous Texas School Book Depository – its sixth floor provided a bird’s-eye view of the presidential motorcade for assassin Lee Harvey Oswald – was widely considered a stain on the city’s image, prompting some civic leaders to call for its removal. According to Hollifield:
“A group of history professors, including [the late] Glenn Linden, Thomas Knock and Daniel Orlovsky, were instrumental in preservation efforts.”
SMU alumna Lindalyn Bennett Adams ’52, who serves on the City of Dallas anniversary program committee, was chair of the Dallas County Historical Commission when the county bought the building in 1977. Adams organized efforts to plan and raise funds for a public museum focused on the JFK assassination within the context of U.S. cultural history.
The museum, then called the Sixth-Floor Kennedy Exhibit, opened on Presidents’ Day 1989 and attracts more than 325,000 visitors annually.
SMU alumnus Pierce Allman ’54 narrates the recently updated audio guide to the museum’s permanent exhibition. As a young newsman for WFAA-Radio, he became the first reporter to broadcast from the Texas School Book Depository November 22, 1963.
“I did the only on-scene broadcast from a phone in the lobby of the building minutes after the event,” Allman says, “and according to the Secret Service, the man that I asked about a phone was Oswald leaving the building.”
ENLIGHTENING A NEW GENERATION
While the circumstances and repercussions of the JFK assassination are indelibly etched in the memories of those old enough to remember that day, they may not be as familiar to later generations. Programming throughout the year is intended to make the legacy of the tragedy more accessible to SMU students and others too young to have experienced it firsthand.
The following programs are planned in the coming months:
- An exploration of the Warren Commission’s findings in October, led by Bridge from Dedman School of Law.
- A conference on “Presidents and Their Crisis,” presented by SMU’s Center for Presidential History, the Maguire Center, the Tower Center and the Sixth Floor Museum February 18, 2014. This final event in the City of Dallas’ yearlong commemoration will examine the way traumatic life events that affect us all, be it illness, death in the family, or personal struggle, affect the nation when they happen to a U.S. president while in office.
- A look at “Dallas Then and Now” in spring 2014.
Details will be available as they are finalized, so watch for announcements on SMU’s website, smu.edu.
The year of remembrance and scholarly review demonstrates that the University is “essential to the intellectual and cultural life of the city,” Engel said. “The assassination is one of the first things that comes to mind when people think about Dallas, and SMU is at the vanguard of helping shape that legacy.”
– Whit Sheppard ’88 and Patricia Ward