Nobody needs a reminder that today is the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, TX. In addition to remembrance articles, videos, and TV broadcasts, everyone has been taking their favorite conspiracy theories out for a walk.
Two contrasting versions of these mythic events remain in circulation, as hotly disputed on the web today as they were in radical magazines during the 1960s. Are we commemorating the meaningless assassination of Kennedy by a lone dysfunctional misfit, Lee Harvey Oswald, who fired on the presidential motorcade from behind, from a window on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository? Or are we marking a much more sinister incident, the shooting of Kennedy by more than one gunman, including, perhaps, a sniper on the grassy knoll firing at the president from the front? If the latter, was this a conspiracy so successful that the authorities still, for whatever reason, don’t – or won’t, or can’t – acknowledge it?
The initial awful and tragic event was followed by Jack Ruby’s murder of Oswald on live TV. I was one of probably millions who saw it as it happened. In its own way, that was even more horrifying than Kennedy’s assassination.
The official Warren Commission report said Oswald acted alone, but it was widely criticized. A subsequent report by the House Select Committee on Assassinations used audio evidence to conclude that a second gunman had fired from the grassy knoll. Conspiracy theories have flourished in the intervening years. The belief that there was a conspiracy behind the assassination is declining, however. 89% of people in the mid-’70s believed there was more than one individual involved, but the percentage has dropped to around 59%.
It has been difficult for people to accept that Lee Harvey Oswald, a scruffy drifter with questionable associates, a former Marine, a communist sympathizer with a Russian wife, could assassinate a President in midday in broad daylight and change the course of history. It is much more satisfying to think that darker forces were involved, that there was a huge conspiracy involving our own government or foreign actors.
We were to live through Bobby Kennedy’s assassination only five years later, Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, and the attempt to assassinate George Wallace in 1972. Each has its own conspiracy theory that disagrees with the official account. A very interesting article, Conspiracy Thinking and the John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Assassinations, explores why conspiracy theories spring up, and why they are often misguided, even if they’re truly believed by their proponents.
There also has been tension in Dallas as the anniversary commemoration is planned.
Attendees have been background-checked by Dallas police. Security will be tight, dissenters and demonstrators are unwelcome. With the world’s media in attendance, for the theorists this is akin to being asphyxiated within touching distance of an oxygen tank.
The fight over who may stand in this small section of downtown Dallas on Friday has come to symbolise the decades-long friction between authorities and truthers.
Understandably, after half a century, many in Dallas would like this anniversary to be an orderly and tasteful form of closure, the point when history was finally left in the past. The conspiracy theorists want precisely the opposite: for the attention to spark more debate, greater openness, extra focus on whatever they happen to believe.
Many readers of this post may not be old enough to recall that awful day as vividly as I can, or were not even born then. They’ve studied it in history classes, but it is not real for them. I was 20 years old, married only 9 months, living with my husband in a tiny apartment in married students housing at Ohio State. I remember where I was when I heard the awful news, and I remember that we spent the next few days glued to our little black-and-white TV, hugging each other and weeping. For all of Kennedy’s faults, known then or subsequently revealed, we admired him and were devastated by the assassination, and the haunting photo of little “John-John” saluting as the funeral procession went by.
I suggested to my (now ex) husband that he might be interested in watching the UP with Steve Kornacki broadcast from last weekend that focused on the assassination, with lots of film clips and guests who were on the scene. His reply was, “Thanks for the link, but I do not want to watch this. Too emotional. One of the lowest periods in my life. Can’t go through it again.” There may be a lot of others our age who feel the same way, and will be relieved when the media hoopla surrounding this anniversary dies down, and “history is finally left in the past.”
A good website to browse for information about Kennedy is JFK 50 years: Celebrate the past to awaken the future, created by the JFK Presidential Library and Museum. (Warning, both an intro and the website autoplay music, but you can turn it off with a couple of clicks.)
If you have thoughts, feelings or stories to share on this anniversary, please do so in the comments. Off topic is just fine too, as always.