DALLAS — This city didn’t murder President John F. Kennedy — a madman with a mail-order rifle did.
But for years Dallas has dealt with the stigma that the thirty-fifth president of the United States was gunned down here.
On Friday, 50 years to the day after the president was killed, the city of Dallas held its first official observation of the anniversary. The ceremony, which was years in the making, was orchestrated at the infamous site where the shots rang out. But organizers went out of their way to make sure the program commemorated Kennedy’s legacy, not the crime that took his life.
“We stand in awe of a dreamer who challenged us - literally - to reach for the moon, though he himself would not live to see us achieve that goal,” Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings told an estimated 5,000 people gathered in a cold and rainy Dealey Plaza on Friday. “We give thanks for his life and service. We offer our condolences to his family - to his daughter, Caroline, especially - on this difficult day.”
History has portrayed 1963 Dallas as a city with a fiery political climate and extremist atmosphere. A full-page Dallas newspaper advertisement on Nov. 22, 1963, painted Kennedy as a communist sympathizer.
On Friday, the mayor called the tragedy a day when “hope and hatred collided” in Dallas. He said Dallas was a young city that learned many lessons in the aftermath of Kennedy’s death.
“It seems that we all grew up that day, city and citizens,” Rawlings said. “And suddenly we had to step up to trying to live up to the challenges of the words and visions of a beloved, yet now late president. Our collective hearts were broken.”
“I can remember it like it was yesterday,” said 61-year-old Emile Gosselin, who traveled from Barre, Vt., to attend Friday’s commemoration. “I wouldn’t have missed this for nothing.”
Gosselin and his son were among a few thousand public spectators picked from a lottery to get a ticket to Friday’s event. While he doesn’t believe assassin Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, Gosselin said he believes Dallas took the right approach in its first official observation.
“Today is about John F. Kennedy, not about what happened or conspiracies,” said Gosselin, who stood near the now-infamous grassy knoll to watch Friday’s solemn tribute. “This man did a lot for this country. He was a great American.”
The hourlong program also featured author and historian David McCullough who read excerpts from famous Kennedy speeches.
“His words changed lives. His words changed history,” McCullough said.
The city also unveiled a new monument at Dealey Plaza. Etched in stone is an excerpt from the speech Kennedy was to deliver that afternoon:
“We in this country, in this generation, are – by destiny rather than by choice – the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of ‘peace on earth, good will toward men.’ That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: "except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain."”
“You wonder what our lives would have been like had he not been assassinated,” said spectator Mark Monse, who still remembers his third-grade teacher bursting into tears upon learning of Kennedy’s death. “I can’t believe it’s been 50 years.”
Monse, now 59, said he found Friday’s tribute to be “well-organized, respectful and tastefully done.”
“I kind of wish Caroline Kennedy was here to see how much everybody cares, but I can fully understand why she wouldn’t be,” Monse said of the president’s daughter, who was 6 when her father was killed.
Monse came to Dealey Plaza on Friday with his 21-year-old son, David. The pair watched the ceremony from the middle of Elm Street in a spot very close to where Kennedy was struck. Earlier this week, the city of Dallas removed two painted X’s from the pavement that had long served as unofficial markers approximating the points of impact. Tour guides have previously taken credit for marking the street.
Monse said thinks conspiracy theorists have turned Kennedy’s death into a “cottage industry.”
“It seems people have gone out of their way to capitalize off of it,” said Monse, who lives near Dallas. “If the Cubans did it, or the Mafia, or little green men from Mars, does it really matter? It’s been 50 years.”
This is the first anniversary year that members of conspiracy theory groups and others have not had access to be in Dealey Plaza at the exact moment of assassination. Instead, the city held the lottery for tickets and performed security checks on all attendees.
“I can’t blame them,” said Charles Thompson, 64. “With all the bombings and terrorist activities going, it’s a prime time for some crazy to do something.”
After threatening to take legal action, a group called the Coalition on Political Assassinations was issued a permit to assemble about two blocks from Dealey Plaza. On Friday, members of the group wore T-shirts bearing an image of Kennedy’s head with a bullet hole, blood and the words “50 years in denial is enough.”
Thompson, a native Texan, said the fiftieth anniversary may not quell conspiracy theories, but he said he hoped that it would at least cast Dallas in a better light.
“This will finally show the nation that we are not a city of hate,” Thompson said. “It was just one person acting alone who brought a black eye to the city.”