JFK 60 years on, Dallas is recovering from that deadly day. Is America?
The assassination on 22 November 1963 made the city a pariah. It’s booming now but many who recall that infamous moment see disturbing parallels in the political climate, writes David Smith
The brick walls are painted white. Dozens of cardboard boxes marked “books” are stacked like a barricade on grimy floorboards. At the south-east corner window of the former Texas school book depository, now a memorial museum, the boxes appear to form a sniper’s perch. It was here, 60 years ago on Wednesday, that, by official accounts, Lee Harvey Oswald fired three shots heard around the world. The assassination of John F Kennedy, the 35th US president, shone an unforgiving light on Dallas, Texas, which came to be known as the “city of hate”. Six decades later, the city has grown beyond recognition and come a long way in grappling with that legacy. But the forces that turned Dealey Plaza into a white-hot crucible are arguably more prevalent than ever. A 24-hour news cycle, gun violence, casual accusations of treason, rightwing extremism and Confederate flags, conspiracy theories and distrust of authority – all are part of the story of the Kennedy assassination and, perhaps more than when the 40th or 50th anniversaries were commemorated, all are newly resonant today. “The political climate now is like the closed-minded climate that was in Dallas at the time of the assassination, where people believe what they believe,” said Carolyn Barta, 84, a veteran journalist born and raised in the city. “It’s the same sort of condition that is now prevalent in the country and it’s frightening.” In the 1960 presidential election, Dallas had voted for Republican Richard Nixon over Democrat Kennedy by the largest margin of any big city. Kennedy’s 1963 civil rights bill was unpopular in the south. In the nine months before his Texas trip, he received more than 400 death threats nationwide. In Dallas, the buckle on the Bible belt, the hostility was a toxic mix of racism, anti-communism and religious bigotry aimed at the country’s first Catholic president – some feared that Kennedy was being controlled by the pope. Extremist groups such as the John Birch Society and the Minutemen were small but vociferous. Mike Rawlings, a Democrat who was mayor of Dallas from 2011 to 2019, said: “There was definitely a very conservative bent. The John Birchers were the worst of it but still there was a lot of folks that were that way. It was the Tea Party and Maga [Make America Great Again] before the Tea Party and Maga.” Rightwing firebrand Edwin Walker, a former army general who in 1962 was charged (but not convicted) with “insurrection and seditious conspiracy”, moved his base of operations to the city. A protest flyer circulating Dallas in 1963 had photos of Kennedy with the headline: “Wanted for treason.” There had been hints of danger in Dallas. Four days before the 1960 election, Kennedy’s running mate, Lyndon Johnson, was heckled by protesters, who spat in the direction of his wife, Lady Bird, and grabbed her gloves and threw them in a gutter. And on the day of the president’s arrival, the Dallas Morning News newspaper contained a fullpage, black-bordered advertisement that included 12 rhetorical questions that accused Kennedy of being soft on communism and betraying US allies. Kennedy reportedly read the ad and said to his wife, Jackie: “We’re headed into nut country.” But oligarchs in Dallas, aware of the dangers, had called for a dignified reception for Kennedy and tried to tighten security. About 200,000 people came out to watch the motorcade and give the first couple an effusive welcome, waving signs and flags, including the Confederate flag. As they neared Dealey Plaza, state governor John Connally’s wife, Nellie, told Kennedy: “Mr President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you.” The presidential limousine turned off Main Street at Dealey Plaza at about 12.30pm. As it passed below the book depository, gunfire suddenly erupted from a window on the sixth floor, sending onlookers diving and running. Bullets struck the president’s neck and head and he slumped over towards his wife. The car sped off to Parkland Memorial hospital a few minutes away. A priest was summoned to administer the last rites and, at 1pm, the 46-year-old Kennedy was pronounced dead, sending shockwaves around the world. The death of a president gave birth to the 24-hour news cycle as, for the first time, the main TV and radio networks cancelled regular programming to provide wall-towall coverage of preparations for Kennedy’s funeral and the criminal investigation in Dallas. Hundreds of reporters crammed into the police headquarters, where Oswald held a bizarre press conference and was subsequently shot dead on live television by nightclub owner Jack Ruby. That incident sealed Dallas’s fate. The New York Times described it as “not too many decades removed from the vigilante tradition of the old frontier”. Patricia Puckett-Hall, 71, who remembers Oswald helping her with homework when he rented a room from her grandmother, said: “The country renamed Dallas the ‘city of hate’ and for about 20 years we could not get tourists to come to Dallas. We couldn’t get conventioneers, we couldn’t get new industry to come to the Dallas area. “We were truly taboo economically, and there were thousands of stories where family or businessmen would go north-east and the cab driver, being friendly, would say: ‘Where you from?’ If they made the mistake of saying Dallas, the driver would pull over, throw their things on the sidewalk and leave them wherever they were. The word got passed through the grapevine: do not tell them you’re from Dallas.” Within the city there were attempts to bury the stigma. Some wanted to demolish the book depository. Mary Kay Ash, a cosmetics entrepreneur, told CBS in 1984: “I think what we should have done is tear that building down, not put up that plaza, not do anything to commemorate it and make a parking lot of out of that thing and not have it there for people to remember.” But the book depository was saved and, after much soul-searching, the Sixth Floor Museum opened there in 1989. The sniper’s perch at the corner window is recreated based on crime scene photos and encased in glass. Other exhibits include an Italian-made Mannlicher-Carcano rifle identical to the one found by investigators, Oswald’s wedding ring and a scale model of Dealey Plaza built by the FBI, complete with strings tracing the paths of the bullets. Neither the Warren Commission nor a congressional select committee found any evidence of a plot by far right groups or the CIA. But the assassination has spawned a thousand conspiracy theories that Oswald did not act alone, boosted by Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK and the extremist movement QAnon. Meanwhile, two factors were important in rebuilding the city’s reputation. The Dallas Cowboys American football team achieved success and were called “America’s team”. The TV soap Dallas ran from 1978 to 1991, enjoying worldwide fame and turning outsiders’ first question from “Who shot JFK?” to “Who shot JR?” When Dallas, and the world, marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination in 2013, many found it a cathartic experience. For former mayor Rawlings, now 69, it was an opportunity to research and reflect on the city’s trajectory. “There was a psychosis that the city went through,” he said. “But Dallas got on with it much quicker than I would have ever thought. It was like: it happened, we had to deal with it. There were some issues but we’ve got to take the future in our hands and do something with it as opposed to kind of stewing in our own pity and guilt.” A decade on, the city is looking forward rather than back. DallasFort Worth is one of the fastest growing US metropolitan areas, drawing business looking to expand or relocate, and has the world’s second busiest airport. Increasingly young and cosmopolitan, it is on course to overtake the Chicago area to become the country’s third most populous metro area within the decade. But as Dallas finally moves on from 22 November 1963, the US is sliding back into distrust, polarisation and violence. In 2021, a mob driven to a frenzy by Donald Trump’s presidential election lies stormed the US Capitol on 6 January; last year, a man broke into the home of former House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi and attacked her husband with a hammer. Rawlings added: “To me, the most fascinating part of the relevancy today – because I don’t believe in a conspiracy theory – is that this sort of vitriol can turn into mental illness so quickly. Someone in Maine can kill people in a bowling alley or people feel alienated and they go into a church private school in Nashville and shoot people. “Everything we do can create this, and it did back then and Lee Harvey Oswald pops up. I don’t think there was a big belief that ‘We need to kill Kennedy’ but there was just that river of hate that’s in us all and, sometimes, people pop up and do bad things.”