When the sun shines on Dallas’s Dealey Plaza, it’s hard to imagine this was the site of the 20th century’s most notorious political assassination.
Yet here, against a backdrop of gracious lawns, fluttering flags, and white pergolas, U.S. president John F. Kennedy was shot and killed on November 22, 1963. During a recent visit to Texas’s third-largest city, I got a chilling two-hour retrospective on the controversial murder.
The Sixth Floor Museum occupies the former Texas School Book Depository, the 1901 brick building from which Lee Harvey Oswald, according to the official investigation, fired the deadly bullets. With 2013 marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination, the museum, which opened in 1989, will undoubtedly surpass its average annual attendance of 325,000 next year.
Entering the lobby, I couldn’t help thinking it was odd to commemorate Kennedy’s life and legacy—also part of the institution’s mandate—in the place he was gunned down.
But as I stood in line for tickets, observing visitors smiling for photos next to a wall-sized shot of the presidential motorcade that tasted death outside on Elm Street, I realized it had to be this way. The site would have been fetishized by curious tourists in any case, perhaps more ghoulishly.
Toting an audio guide, I took an elevator to the infamous sixth floor to explore the collection, which features 45 minutes of film and more than 400 artifacts and photos. I soon figured out that frequently pausing the running commentary was essential, because appreciating the extensively captioned exhibits takes time.
To this day, JFK remains the youngest American president ever elected. In 1960, the 43-year-old Democratic Catholic senator from Boston defeated Richard Nixon by fewer than 120,000 votes (out of about 69 million cast). That victory was greeted with the kind of euphoria that wouldn’t be matched again until Barack Obama’s 2008 triumph.
Of course, the early ’60s abounded with social foment, and the museum skillfully contextualizes that vibe. Pop-culture titles from that time are displayed, from seminal books like Silent Spring and The Feminine Mystique to hit plays like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Camelot. Also highlighted are technological innovations such as colour TV, Polaroid colour film, and Selectric typewriters, all of which would facilitate the unprecedented media coverage of the assassination.
Other materials—including campaign posters, LIFE magazine photos, and video clips—reveal just how polarizing JFK’s policies were. During his confrontations with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev over the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the right decried him as soft on Communism. The era’s domestic racial strife and labour-movement battles are also well documented.
When I reached the “Trip to Texas” section, depicting Kennedy on the campaign trail, a feeling of foreboding started to kick in.
There’s a yellowing full-page ad taken out by the self-proclaimed American Fact-Finding Committee in the Dallas Morning News on November 22, accusing the president of catering to the Reds—with rhetoric not unlike that directed toward the “socialist” Obama nowadays. You can also see a letter to the editor urging readers to treat Kennedy better than U.N. ambassador Adlai Stevenson, who’d been assaulted the month before while visiting this Republican stronghold.
Footage of JFK’s 11:40 a.m. arrival on Air Force One at Love Field and his early moments in Dallas becomes chilling in light of the TV commentator’s words: “There was no danger whatsoever…a completely overwhelming welcome for the president.”
Less than an hour and a half later, Kennedy would be dead, as illustrated here by a sequence of photos from the film that Dallas clothier Abraham Zapruder shot with a home movie camera. Nearby stands the Associated Press teletype machine that told the world what had happened.
Seeing the reconstructed sniper’s perch in the building’s southeast corner, where Oswald’s rifle was found by police, completes the haunting effect. The stacked boxes of books are cordoned off behind glass, but you can get essentially the same view Oswald had by gazing out over Dealey Plaza from the adjacent windows. Middle-aged men stood near me, arguing over bullet trajectories.
Whether you feel as if JFK was your personal friend or just another flunky of the military-industrial complex against which President Dwight Eisenhower famously warned in 1961, the whole thing is disturbing. It doesn’t get much more comfortable as you review state funeral movies featuring a dignified Jackie Kennedy and three-year-old JFK Jr.’s famous salute to his father’s coffin, or the details of Oswald’s “disgruntled left-wing loner” background.
The museum has a self-declared goal of impartiality, so in that spirit it allots space to showcasing the theories arguing that the ex-Marine and one-time defector to the Soviet Union didn’t act alone. Before 9/11, the assassination had spawned more conspiracy theories than any other event in U.S. history.
Particularly striking is 1978 TV footage of acoustical expert Mark Weiss’s testimony before the House Select Committee on Assassinations. Weiss controversially asserted that a recording captured by a mike on a motorcycle policeman’s radio pointed to a 95 percent or better chance that a second shooter had fired from the grassy knoll. (Yes, that grassy knoll.) However, follow-up studies have contradicted his assessment.
I began to grasp how you could become obsessed with studying the possibilities.
The museum aims to wrap up its presentation with a more positive vision of Kennedy’s achievements. There are stamps from places from Germany to Nigeria commemorating him, inspirational JFK quotations, and a gift shop packed with memorabilia. I took a pass on Oliver Stone’s JFK screenplay and the official Warren Commission Report, but bought a pair of museum-crested shades that I donned outside in the bright sunshine.
The Sixth Floor Museum isn’t as light as other tourist activities like sampling Tex-Mex cuisine or touring the lush Dallas Arboretum. But historically speaking, it’s a must-see.