By Cathy Harasta
The Texas Catholic
DALLAS—As wintry winds swept Dealey Plaza, thousands gathered on Nov. 22 at the scene of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s assassination to salute his legacy and spirit on the 50th anniversary of his death.
City officials and leaders from the faith community also had expressed hope that the carefully planned ceremony would help erase the stain of Dallas’ darkest day.
“It is a very special occasion,” said spectator David Hicks, 42, of Arlington, Texas. “It shows that Dallas has moved on. It’s not the evil city that it was depicted to be.”
The ceremony’s chilly day provided a contrast to the milder mid-day on Nov. 22, 1963, when the weather allowed the president; First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy; Texas Gov. John Connally, and his wife, Nellie Connally, to travel through downtown Dallas in an open limousine, greeting warm and welcoming crowds along the streets.
A year of planning preceded the memorial ceremony—the city’s first public-private event and an observance intended as a solemn tribute to the nation’s 35th president and first Catholic to hold the office. Organizers also wanted the memorial to unite Dallas in the memory of JFK’s spirit.
In the early 1960s, a vocal contingent of civic and business leaders criticized the president for his policies, and several incidents unbecoming to Dallas occurred in the city. But when President Kennedy arrived in Dallas 50 years ago, enthusiastic supporters turned out to cheer him on his route from Love Field through downtown and to the Dallas Trade Mart.
As President Kennedy’s motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza, on the western edge of downtown, Lee Harvey Oswald, the Warren Commission later determined, fired three shots from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. Two of those struck the president. Gov. Connally recovered after being struck by a bullet.
President Kennedy was pronounced dead at Parkland Hospital. His body was placed in a casket, loaded onto Air Force One—where Lyndon B. Johnson took the oath of office—and flown to Washington, D.C.
The ceremony’s organizers emphasized security, and many surrounding offices and governmental buildings were closed. Flags were lowered to half-staff.
A “missing man” flyover salute and a performance by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra had to be scratched because of the inclement weather and low clouds.
Dallas Bishop Kevin J. Farrell gave the invocation, recalling JFK’s vision, the tragedy that unfolded 50 years ago, and the need to move forward.
“Almighty and ever Faithful God, we lift up our minds and hearts to you today because you Lord have lifted us up from the horrible tragedy enacted in this place, from the cruel suffering that was borne on this hill from the shock and horror that gripped our nation and from the years when we as citizens of this city suffered and were implicated by the gun shot by one man that killed a president in whom many of us had set our hopes and dreams for a better America,” Bishop Farrell said.
“It was your abiding inspiration and active presence among us Lord that moved us ever forward despite the temptation only to lament and to be paralyzed in our grief,” he said.
“You turned our sorrow into a firm commitment to move forward. You turned our grief into a resolve to refashion our city to a place where life flourishes and true love abounds.
“You turned our devastation to a commitment to rebuild here the city of God; a city where all are welcomed, nurtured and cared for.
“We rejoice with gratitude beyond all telling in all that you have caused to happen here in a place which was disgraced, scorned and ruthlessly judged, by ourselves and by others.
“May you, Heavenly Father, continue to sustain us as we celebrate that the phoenix has risen from the ashes of violence in this very place…that hatred can be turned to harmony; that ignorance can cede to understanding; that prejudice can lead to openness.”
A chance to face the future
Mayor Mike Rawlings talked about the “nightmarish reality” that unfolded “in our front yard” and noted that people from all over the world joined Americans in their grief. He said that everyone had to stand up to the challenges and visions that JFK had provided.
He also said that it is time to move on.
“While the past is never in the past, this was a lifetime ago,” the mayor said. “Now today, we the people of Dallas honor the life, legacy and leadership of the man who called us not to think of our own interests but of our country’s. We give thanks to his life and his service. We offer condolences to his family, especially to his daughter Caroline on this difficult day.
“We pay tribute to an idealist without illusions who helped build a more just and equal world,” he said. “We salute a Commander in Chief who stared down a nuclear threat to this country. We praise a writer who profiled true courage and modeled it himself. We applaud a visionary who created a core of Americans to promote peace around the world.”
He said that Dallas is a different city today because of the hard work of many people to improve the substance of the city, not merely its image.
“I believe the New Frontier did not end that day on our Texas frontier and I hope that President Kennedy would be pleased with our humble efforts towards fulfilling our country’s highest calling: that of providing the opportunity for all citizens to exercise those inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Mayor Rawlings said. “The city of Dallas will continue on that course.
“The man we remember today gave us a gift that will not be squandered. He and our city will forever be linked — in tragedy, yes, but out of that tragedy an opportunity was granted to us: a chance to face the future when it is the darkest and the most uncertain; how to hold high the torch even when the flame flickers and threatens to go out.”
The mayor called for a moment of silence at 12:30 p.m. CST and bells from many churches across the city tolled at the moment that the shots were fired 50 years ago.
Many of those who gathered for the ceremony stood in a steady mist and temperatures in the low 30s. Event organizers provided the spectators with ponchos because umbrellas were barred from the ceremony.
An emotional day
Orlando and Mariva McDaniel, members of Holy Cross Catholic Church, a predominately African-American parish in Dallas, were among those who got tickets. McDaniel said he was going on 3 years old and living in Lake Charles, La., when JFK was assassinated.
“It wasn’t until I got to grade school that I really understood all of what my parents and grandparents had been saying. As a minority, it was really about all of the changes that were taking place,” he said. “Being a part of this is like being part of history. Being here is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
As the ceremony concluded, Dallas resident Cheryl Gilmore rubbed her eyes with her gloved hands.
“It was emotional,” she said. “I didn’t think I would cry, but here I am crying.”
Anna Woods, of Bedford, Texas, said that she never will forget the memorial, especially author-historian David McCullough’s contributions.
“It was a piece of history,” she said. “I felt it was important to be here.”
As the 50th anniversary of the assassination approached, thousands of people from across the globe–including news crews and conspiracy theorists–arrived in Dallas. The Sixth Floor Museum, located in the old Texas School Book Depository, has reported record numbers of visitors.
Two white “X’s” painted on Elm Street at the spot where JFK was shot were removed by city workers early in the week, some saying that those were not officially placed there by the city.
Multimedia coverage of the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination can be found at TexasCatholic.com and in the Nov. 22 print edition.