At 12:21 p.m. on Nov. 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy’s presidential limousine turned onto Main Street in downtown Dallas. More than 150,000 people turned out along the motorcade’s 10-mile route, including one man, rifle in hand, perched beside a sixth-floor window overlooking Dealey Plaza.
The shots rang out nine minutes later, striking Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally and sending the open-air limo speeding toward Parkland Memorial Hospital.
Roughly one hour after his initial bulletin, Walter Cronkite paused before breaking the news: “From Dallas, Texas, the flash apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time.”
Lee Harvey Oswald’s fatal shot killed America’s 35th president, sending the nation into shock and mourning.
It also sealed Dallas’s international reputation as the “City of Hate.” Unlike Los Angeles after the 1968 killing of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy or even Memphis after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Dallas carried the unique burden as the place where “something like this was bound to happen,” said Stephen Fagin, curator of the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.
“For so many people, Dallas the community was held accountable for the death of the president,” Fagin said.
Fagin points to three incidents — all of which took place in Dallas — that preceded Kennedy’s assassination and helped fuel the City of Hate label. All stemmed from Dallas’s modest but powerful concentration of right-wing extremists who vilified Democrats as soft on communism and found a political home in one of Texas’s most conservative and wealthy cities.
The first took place on Nov. 4, 1960, four days before the election that put Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson in the White House.
On his last major campaign swing through his home state of Texas, Johnson, then the Senate majority leader, was due to give a speech at a downtown Dallas hotel. Republicans in town were also staging a major event that day, with hundreds converging outside the hotel “to show the Senate majority leader was not welcome,” Fagin said.
Johnson was given the option of taking a back entrance to reach the speaking venue across the street, but chose instead to walk through the crowd, Lady Bird at his side. Photographs circulated nationwide showed screaming, hostile protesters barricading the street to block the Johnsons from crossing. One grabbed Lady Bird’s gloves and tossed them in the gutter.
“They were a small group of demonstrators so extreme in their actions that they helped to characterize Dallas,” Fagin said.
The second incident to mar Dallas’s reputation took place at a White House luncheon hosted by Kennedy, now the president, for a group of Texas newspaper publishers in October 1961. At the table was Ted Dealey, then the publisher of the Dallas Morning News and the son of George Bannerman Dealey, for whom Dealey Plaza is named.
During the lunch, Dealey told Kennedy “that the country needs a man on horseback, and Kennedy is riding around on Caroline’s tricycle,” Fagin said. It was not so much the political criticism that irked Kennedy but rather the involvement of his 3-year-old daughter.
After Dealey’s confrontation with Kennedy, Jim Chambers, then the publisher of the competing Dallas Times Herald, told the president that Dealey didn’t represent all of Dallas and apologized on behalf of the city, Fagin said.
The final incident coincided with Adlai Stevenson’s visit to town in October 1963. Stevenson, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, came to Dallas to give a speech, and ultraconservative demonstrators infiltrated the crowd. One man used a bullhorn to chastise Stevenson and disrupt the speech’s broadcast.
Upon leaving the auditorium, Stevenson came upon roughly 100 demonstrators behind a barricade, including one particularly agitated woman. As Stevenson walked over to talk to her, a man nearby spit on him, and the woman whacked him on the head with her sign.
Stevenson cautioned Kennedy about the trip he would be taking to Dallas one month later, Fagin said.
Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, said that after Kennedy’s assassination, history was often read in reverse by those who said “it makes sense that Kennedy was killed there.”
“It creates an incredible irony,” Engel said. “The ‘City of Hate’ rhetoric paints Dallas as a center of right-wing, hawkish nationalism. Kennedy was killed by a left-wing person.”
And then the nation watched as Oswald was shot to death on live television by nightclub owner Jack Ruby at Dallas police headquarters.
How Dallas could climb back from its terrible fame rested largely in rebranding the city in the American psyche. The success of the Dallas Cowboys, who gradually earned the nickname “America’s Team,” played its part. And the popular television show “Dallas,” a soap opera about Texas oil magnates, helped shift the narrative from “ ‘Who shot JFK?’ to ‘Who shot J.R.?’ ” Fagin said.
But what to do with the Texas School Book Depository, which housed the sixth-floor office space where Oswald found his target, posed the most charged questions on how to repurpose the scene of the crime. The early 1970s saw efforts to tear down the building, and it remained vacant for several years. Dallas County acquired the building in 1977, and in 1989, a historical exhibition on the assassination opened in the building’s sixth floor.
About 350,000 people visit the museum each year. Many Americans remain skeptical that Oswald acted alone, polls show, and new releases of classified records about the assassination in recent weeks have generated headlines around the world.
“There was a societal need to do justice to an act like the Kennedy assassination by remembering it properly,” Fagin said.
On the day of the museum’s opening, a front-page headline in the Dallas Times Herald read, “Today We Stand Whole Again.”
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