Dallas To Commemorate Anniversary Of Kennedy Assassination

This is the 50th anniversary of one of the most shocking moments in our nation's history. As President John F. Kennedy's motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza, shots were fired from the Schoolbook Depository building in Dallas. Kennedy was struck, and pronounced dead within the hour.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Today is the 50th anniversary of one of the most shocking moments in our nation's history. President John F. Kennedy was riding through Dallas in an open-top limousine, on his way to give a speech. As the president passed through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, shots were fired from the now-infamous school book depository building. Kennedy was struck and pronounced dead within the hour.

At midday today, a solemn commemoration will take place at Dealey Plaza. NPR's Wade Goodwyn will be there, and he joins us now. And Wade, tell us what's planned in the city.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Well, church bells will ring throughout the city today. The main ceremony is at noon at Dealey Plaza, where the president was assassinated; and there will be a moment of silence right at 12:30, marking when John F. Kennedy was shot. A highlight, I think, will be historian David McCullough reading from JFK's speeches, as well as the U.S. Naval Academy men's glee club.

They're performing in honor of Kennedy's service aboard a PT-109 during World War II. And finally, at the Texas Theater - and that's where Lee Harvey Oswald was caught and arrested - the movie theater is showing "War Is Hell." And that's the same feature Oswald snuck into 50 years ago.

GREENE: Wade, one subplot to all of these events: Dallas was given a pretty awful nickname - "the city of hate" - because the president was killed there. Is that a legacy the city's still struggling with even 50 years later?

GOODWYN: You bet. I mean Dallas would like to announce on this 50th anniversary of the assassination that it's no longer the patriarchal, racist, hateful little Southern city it once was. You know, of course Dallas did not pull the trigger 50 years ago. But the world came to feel that Dallas, nevertheless, helped load the gun. I don't know if that's fair or not. But it doesn't matter because over time, Dallas - by and large - came to accept the guilty verdict.

GREENE: If Dallas is trying to get rid of that nickname now, and declare that they've gotten rid of that city of hate label, has the city changed over time?

GOODWYN: It has. I mean, in 1963, Dallas was a relatively small Southern city of 700,000, 80 percent white. Its leadership was frightened of the civil rights movement, and it was clinging to a Jim Crow culture that had lasted 75 years, but it was on its way out the door.

I mean, the hatred of the federal government that was so prominent among the city's elite had a whole lot to do with race, and the fact that Kennedy's Justice Department was seeming to side with black people.

Everything was smaller then - attitudes, population. In 1963, Fort Worth was a city that was an hour away by car and today, Dallas-Fort Worth is one, continuous metroplex with nearly 5 million people. Dallas itself is a minority majority city. The district attorney is black; the sheriff, lesbian; and Dallas has turned blue.

Mitt Romney carried Texas with ease, of course, but President Obama carried Dallas with ease. For the people who now make up the political majority in Dallas, JFK was their guy.

GREENE: As much as Dallas wants to sort of handle how this commemoration is seen, there are a lot of conspiracy theorists out there in the country who believe that the truth has still not been revealed about what happened on that day. I mean, are they going to be part of the conversation today?

GOODWYN: They will be. They won't be allowed in Dealey Plaza. There's a little space next to Dealey Plaza set off for them. Dallas was very careful about it. It doesn't want it to be some sort of conspiracy theory circus today. There's probably none other metropolitan population who's read more than Dallas. We know all the conspiracy theories.

You know, it was LBJ. It was the Mafia. It was the anti-Castro Cubans. It was the KGB. It was J. Edgar Hoover. It was big oil. It was a UFO cover-up. I think I've left out the Secret Service accidentally shooting the president in the back of the head, and covering it up; and the Israelis, who killed Kennedy because he didn't want them to have the bomb.

GREENE: A long list.

GOODWYN: I actually think most of Dallas believes Oswald did it. The more you learn about Lee Harvey, the more he seems like some frustrated high school shooter trying to show the world what a great man he is with a rifle in his hands. It is, I acknowledge, an unsatisfying answer. I mean, really - that's it? It seems incomprehensible that such a powerless person could kill the most powerful man on earth so easily.

But we were innocent, 50 years ago today. We learned a painful truth.

GREENE: NPR's Wade Goodwyn joining us from Dallas. Wade, thanks a lot.

GOODWYN: It's my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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