The shots that killed President John F. Kennedy in November 1963 were fired from the sixth floor of a nondescript warehouse at the edge of Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas. That floor in the Texas School Book Depository became a museum exhibit in 1989 and was designated part of a National Historic Landmark District in 1993. This book recounts the slow and painful process by which a city and a nation came to terms with its collective memory of the assassination and its aftermath.
Stephen Fagin begins Assassination and Commemoration by retracing the events that culminated in Lee Harvey Oswald’s shots at the presidential motorcade. He vividly describes the volatile political climate of midcentury Dallas as well as the shame that haunted the city for decades after the assassination. The book highlights the decades-long work of people determined to create a museum that commemorates a president and recalls the drama and heartbreak of November 22, 1963. Fagin narrates the painstaking day-to-day work of cultivating the support of influential citizens and convincing boards and committees of the importance of preservation and interpretation.
Today, The Sixth Floor Museum helps visitors to interpret the depository and Dealey Plaza as sacred ground and a monument to an unforgettable American tragedy. One of the most popular historic sites in Texas, it is a place of quiet reflection, of edification for older Americans who remember the Kennedy years, and of education for the large and growing number of younger visitors unfamiliar with the events the museum commemorates. Like the museum itself, Fagin’s book both carefully studies a community’s confrontation with tragedy and explores the ways we preserve the past.
|Publisher:||University of Oklahoma Press|
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About the Author
Stephen Fagin is Curator and Oral Historian at The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. He holds a Master of Arts in Museum Studies from the University of Oklahoma.
Conover Hunt served as the museum’s original project director and is its former Chief Curator and Historian.
Edward T. Linenthal is the author of Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum and The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory.
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Assassination and Commemoration
JFK, Dallas, and The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza
By Stephen Fagin
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2013 Dallas County Historical Foundation dba The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza
All rights reserved.
A SITE OF TRAGEDY
Buell Wesley Frazier remembered the morning of Friday, November 22, 1963, as overcast with "a little fine, real pinpoint-type mist in the air." The nineteen-year-old had been employed at the Texas School Book Depository Company warehouse at 411 Elm Street in downtown Dallas since September of that year. Building manager Roy Truly hired Frazier to fill orders for textbooks at $1.25 per hour. One of Frazier's coworkers at that time was a twenty-four-year-old native of New Orleans named Lee Harvey Oswald.
Oswald owed his job at the Depository in part to Frazier, who lived in Irving, Texas, with his sister. Their neighbor, Ruth Paine, a Quaker and student of Russian, had befriended Oswald's young wife, Marina, and taken her in when the Oswalds had separated in September 1963. When Paine mentioned during an afternoon gathering of neighbors that Marina's husband was in need of work, Frazier's sister said that her brother had recently found a job at the Texas School Book Depository. Paine called Roy Truly on October 14, 1963, to ask about a job opening, describing Oswald as "a fine young man ... [whose] wife is expecting a [second] baby ... in a few days, and he needs work desperately."
Lee Harvey Oswald, living at that time in a boardinghouse in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas, visited his pregnant wife and daughter in Irving on weekends and was still in search of work when he learned of the job opening. He went to the Depository the following day to meet with Truly. They discussed Oswald's service in the Marine Corps, and Oswald falsely indicated that he had never "had any trouble with the police." Recognizing that Oswald's employment would likely be temporary, Truly hired the "quiet and well mannered" young man on the spot. "He looked like a nice fellow to me," Truly told the Warren Commission in 1964. "He used the word 'sir,' you know, which a lot of them don't do at this time." Oswald reported to work the following day, filling book orders in the sixth floor storage area and moving them to the ground floor for shipment.
On Oswald's first day, Depository manager Bill Shelley assigned Buell Frazier the task of training the new employee. Frazier remembered Oswald as a quiet intellectual, always interested in solving problems. To his coworkers, Oswald seemed primarily focused on his work. According to one, Oswald's rare attempts to "fit in" with his peers invariably failed and unintentionally triggered laughter on occasion. Oswald, who was closer to Frazier than to any of his other coworkers, once asked him why the other employees laughed at him. Frazier replied that the newcomer expressed himself "on a little bit higher level," adding, "It's very easy to make fun of someone when you don't really understand what they're saying."
Upon learning that Oswald visited his estranged wife and daughter in Irving, Frazier offered Oswald a ride whenever he wanted. This first occurred on Friday, October 18, two days before the Oswalds' second daughter was born.8 Thereafter, Frazier routinely provided Oswald with a lift to Irving every Friday and drove him back to work the following Monday. Oswald deviated from this schedule during the week of President John F. Kennedy's scheduled visit to Dallas. Explaining that he needed to pick up some curtain rods for his rooming house, Oswald rode with Frazier to the Paine residence on Thursday, November 21, instead. That evening he unsuccessfully tried to convince Marina to move back in with him. When he went to work the following morning, he inexplicably left his wedding ring and $170 in cash on a bureau at the Paine home. Oswald accompanied Frazier to the Texas School Book Depository on Friday, November 22, 1963, with a package wrapped in brown paper that Oswald said contained curtain rods. Walking briskly into the building that morning, Lee Harvey Oswald "was, in that moment, a quiet young man in his 24th year, in the midst of a disintegrating marriage, a menial job and a confused political ideology."
Born on October 18, 1939, two months after the death of his father, Oswald endured a nomadic existence during his earliest years, including spending over a year in an orphanage, when his mother could not financially care for him. He attended six different elementary schools between the first and fourth grades. A 1953 psychiatric evaluation of thirteen-year-old Oswald in New York City, prompted by truancy charges, found him to be "seriously withdrawn, detached and emotionally isolated." Social worker Evelyn Strickman, however, noted "a rather pleasant, appealing quality" about the quiet youth. Overprotected by his mother, Marguerite, to whom he was both devoted and abusive, Oswald seldom made friends and spent much of his time reading at home. Around 1955, while living with his mother in New Orleans, Oswald began reading Communist literature obtained from the local public library. The political philosophy of Karl Marx would fascinate him for the rest of his brief life. Dorothy Bush, one of Oswald's teachers at Beauregard Junior High School, later described him as a poor but typical student who once had to be moved for talking excessively and failing to follow instructions on an important assignment.
One week after his seventeenth birthday, Lee Harvey Oswald joined the U.S. Marine Corps. During basic training, he qualified as a sharpshooter. As a private first class at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, he earned a "confidential" security clearance. Oswald was assigned to the Atsugi Air Base near Tokyo, Japan, where some researchers and theorists suggest—though no convincing evidence supports this claim—that Oswald may have been "recruited by the CIA for covert intelligence work." Court-martialed twice while in Japan, Oswald suffered a nervous breakdown that prompted another psychiatric evaluation. By the time he returned to the United States in 1958, he was "blatantly demonstrat[ing] his devotion to communism by studying the Russian language, playing Russian music and addressing fellow Marines as 'comrades.'"
The following year Oswald defected to the Soviet Union, after having requested a dependency discharge from the Marines, ostensibly to care for his mother, who had injured herself in a work-related accident. Arriving in Moscow on October 16, two days shy of his twentieth birthday, Oswald expressed his desire to become a Soviet citizen. When his formal request was rejected, he attempted suicide. Still eager to prove himself to the Russians, Oswald tried formally to renounce his citizenship at the U.S. Embassy but never completed the process. Soviet officials permitted him temporary residence and provided him with a comfortable apartment and a factory job in the industrial city of Minsk. After a brief period of celebrity as an American defector, Oswald became disenchanted with life in the Soviet Union, angered by the inequities in the lifestyles of the working and ruling classes and perpetual food shortages.
By early 1961 Oswald had indicated to the U.S. Embassy that he wanted to return home. Before doing so, however, he met and married Marina Prusakova, the niece of a Russian colonel, after a courtship of a little over one month. After a year of "running Soviet and U.S. bureaucratic hurdles," Lee and Marina Oswald left Russia and settled in Fort Worth, Texas, two weeks prior to the birth of their first daughter.
Married life proved difficult for the Oswalds. Lee, now twenty-three, became reclusive and irritable. Marina later told the Warren Commission that her husband's attitude changed drastically after their arrival in the United States. Adding to Oswald's frustrations were two probing interviews with Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents following his return—standard procedure for returning defectors. According to Marina, Oswald struck her on several occasions and refused to teach her English. She found solace in the local Russian community, which Lee generally resented. The dislike was mutual, and some members of the community helped Marina through the couple's separations and reconciliations.
Oswald worked briefly as a sheet metal worker in Fort Worth and later at an advertising photography firm in Dallas after moving there in October 1962. Although he scored high on a Texas Employment Commission aptitude test, Oswald rarely got along with fellow employees, was often inefficient, and continued to tout his interest in Russia. In 1963, under the alias "A. Hidell," Oswald purchased a .38 revolver and a 6.5mm Mannlicher-Carcano rifle. He explained to his wife that they were for hunting, though he posed with the guns and two Communist newspapers for a series of photographs in the backyard of the couple's apartment house.
On April 10, 1963, Oswald allegedly fired a rifle shot into the home of Maj. Gen. Edwin A. Walker, a right-wing extremist, who was slightly wounded. At his wife's behest, ostensibly to prevent another attempt on Walker's life, Oswald moved to New Orleans shortly thereafter. Though briefly employed lubricating machinery at a coffee factory, he spent much of his time reading gun magazines and launching an unofficial chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, with himself as the only member. While passing out "Hands Off Cuba" leaflets, Oswald got into a street brawl with a trio of Cuban exiles, was arrested, and spent a night in jail. His activities in Louisiana during the summer of 1963 have long interested researchers seeking to tie him to the local intelligence community, including two individuals later implicated in the Kennedy assassination by New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison. Former FBI agent Guy Bannister was allegedly involved with Cuban exiles training to overthrow Fidel Castro, and businessman Clay Shaw was a rumored CIA operative.
Oswald traveled to Mexico City in September in an unsuccessful attempt to get a visa to visit Cuba before returning to the Soviet Union. According to Marina, he had long regretted leaving Russia and periodically talked about wanting to return. Dejected, Oswald returned to Dallas by bus, arriving on October 3, 1963. He frequently saw but was separated from Marina and their daughter June, who were living with Ruth Paine in Irving. Such was the personal history and mind-set of Lee Harvey Oswald when Paine informed him of a potential job at the Texas School Book Depository.
President John F. Kennedy visited Dallas on Friday, November 22, 1963, as part of a political tour of the state. Shortly after the Kennedys arrived at Love Field at 11:37 A.M., a presidential parade made its way through downtown en route to a bipartisan luncheon at the Dallas Trade Mart. Shots were fired at the motorcade at 12:30 P.M., just after the limousine carrying President and Mrs. Kennedy and Texas governor John B. Connally and his wife, Nellie, turned from Houston Street to Elm Street, passing by the front door of the Texas School Book Depository. According to a federal investigation of the incident conducted by the Warren Commission, one shot missed the limousine. Another struck Kennedy in the back of the neck, exited the front, and traveled forward, severely wounding Governor Connally, who was seated in front of the president. After a third shot fatally struck Kennedy in the head, his limousine sped to Parkland Memorial Hospital. Despite efforts at resuscitation, physicians pronounced the President dead at 1:00 P.M. That afternoon Secret Service agents escorted Mrs. Kennedy and the late President's remains to Love Field for the return trip to Washington, D.C. The new President, Lyndon B. Johnson, took the oath of office aboard Air Force One prior to takeoff.
President Kennedy's funeral on Monday, a national day of mourning, involved seven thousand members of the military. More than one hundred foreign leaders and dignitaries attended to pay their respects to the late president. Grief over the Kennedy assassination galvanized the nation and the world in a manner not witnessed again until the events of September 11, 2001. The Sunday Times in London commented that there had "never [before] been such intense world-wide grief," and the New York Times called the Kennedy assassination "another day of infamy which the American people will never forget." Psychologist Therese Rando later wrote that the nation endured "a grieving process quite similar to what an individual experiences when [a family member] dies."
Millions of Americans collectively experienced that weekend through unprecedented news coverage, as most commercial programming was suspended. Events were canceled across the United States, and some stores, movie theaters, and restaurants closed for part of the weekend. Disneyland experienced its first unscheduled closing and did not do so again until the terrorist attacks in 2001. In Dallas a Saturday balloon parade and various social events were canceled, most theaters and nightclubs closed, and many downtown office buildings were shuttered by 3:00 P.M. on Friday.
The evening of the assassination, a Canadian colleague asked Vivian Castleberry, Dallas Times Herald women's news editor, to write a story on the city's mood. Castleberry's experiences during a stroll in downtown Dallas reflected the sudden impact that the tragedy had on the city on a usually busy Friday evening:
The wind was gusting. There probably were not more than four cars that I met [and] they were traveling very, very slowly. Everything was closed. The Crystal Charity Ball had been canceled, which was the biggest charity ball that we have—was and still is—in Dallas. The opera had been canceled. All of the nightclubs were closed. All the restaurants were closed. Dallas had come to a screeching standstill. Nothing was going on. And the story that I wired that night to Canada led with the idea that Dallas is a ghost town.
At football commissioner Pete Rozelle's discretion, the Dallas Cowboys played the Browns at Cleveland on Sunday before a crowd of 55,000. Many in the crowd booed the Cowboys as they took to the field, in what coach Tom Landry felt was a clear acknowledgment that his team hailed from the city where Kennedy had been shot. The Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) canceled all television sports and entertainment programming in memory of the fallen President, so the game was not televised.
World attention was divided that weekend between Washington, D.C., where preparations for President Kennedy's funeral were underway, and Dallas, the site of the ongoing investigation into the assassination. Following the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald while in police custody on Sunday morning, November 24, President Lyndon Johnson launched an official government investigation into the Kennedy assassination, headed by Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. The Warren Commission concluded the following year that three shots, fired by lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald, originated from the southeast corner window on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. The commission's twenty-six volumes of hearings, testimony, and exhibits explored Oswald's background in detail and traced his movements immediately before and after the shooting in Dealey Plaza.
Thirty-five minutes before the shots were fired, Charles Givens, a Texas School Book Depository employee, observed Oswald. Carrying the clipboard that he used to fill book orders, he was "walking from the southeast corner of the sixth floor toward the elevator." Between ninety seconds and two minutes after the assassination, Dallas motorcycle policeman Marion Baker, the first law enforcement official to enter the Depository, encountered Oswald in the second-floor lunchroom. He released Oswald when Roy Truly identified him as a fellow employee. Oswald allegedly walked out of the Depository's front entrance at 12:33 P.M. Police arrested him eighty minutes later at the Texas Theatre in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas after Oswald allegedly shot and killed patrolman J. D. Tippit near the corner of Tenth and Patton Streets. According to eyewitness accounts, he also attempted to shoot officer M. N. McDonald in the movie theater. A trio of cops wrestled Oswald to the ground. McDonald and Oswald had traded punches to the face, and the police officer recalled that Oswald yelled "police brutality" and "don't hit me anymore." The scuffle left a bruise under his left eye and a slight cut above his right, leading reporters to speculate that officers may have abused him while he was in custody.
Excerpted from Assassination and Commemoration by Stephen Fagin. Copyright © 2013 Dallas County Historical Foundation dba The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations ix
Foreword, by Conover Hunt xiii
Preface, by Edward T. Linenthal xvii
1 A Site of Tragedy 3
2 A Site of Shame 44
3 A Site of Reflection 59
4 A Site of Conflict 89
5 A Site of History 123