An X marks the spot. Right there, a bullet blew off part of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s head. Everyone has seen the images. The announcement of the death of the 35th president of the United States was made official later, at one o’clock, but this is the location where he was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald from the second to last floor of the Texas schoolbook warehouse. It was half past twelve on November 22, 1963. The 60th anniversary of the assassination will be observed soon. The X is painted on the center lane of the three lanes of the Dealey Plaza roadway in Dallas, Texas. It’s a place that was shaped by history, and it became the center of the world then and in the days that followed. The Sixth Floor Museum is there to commemorate it. The X marks the assassination site, and the museum is located where Oswald pulled the trigger. Both Kennedy and Oswald are part of this story; they are two sides of the same coin.
The visitor can look out the same window from which the president’s assassin aimed at him. Well, not exactly the same one; the one about two meters to the right. From there, you can see the X on the roadway, and two smaller ones that indicate the previous shots. The window used by Oswald is surrounded by replicas of the boxes of books arranged as the police found them that day. It is one of the museum’s highlights; nobody can resist experiencing that view. One winks as if looking through the scope of Oswald’s Mannlicher-Carcano. An identical rifle is on display there; the original is preserved in the National Archives, as are most of the objects and documents related to this event. Comments proliferate: “He’s way off.” “He was a good shot.” “It couldn’t have been him from here alone.” The museum also contemplates the conspiracy theories that have revolved and will continue to revolve around JFK’s assassination. In 1964, Harrison Salisbury, a reporter for The New York Times, claimed that in the year 2000 there would still be discussions about the president’s death. That proved to be an understatement.
The latest new wrinkle to the story has just been added by Paul Landis, then the secret service agent in charge of security for the first lady, Jackie Kennedy. Landis’s book The Final Witness: A Kennedy Secret Agent Breaks his Silence After 60 Years comes out in October. In it, he provides information that contradicts the official account, the Warren Commission’s conclusion, which states that there were only three bullets, all of which Oswald fired. Now, Landis claims that when Kennedy’s body was in the hospital, he placed a bullet on the stretcher that he found in the back seat of the limousine where the president was traveling. 60 years later, the legend endures, undiminished.
Although Dallas wants to bill itself as a forward-looking city, geared toward promoting the arts with important museums, collections and theaters built by Pritzker Prize-winners like Rem Khoolhas, Renzo Piano and Norman Foster, it cannot deny the indelible mark that the Kennedy assassination has left. The sheer volume of visits to the Sixth Floor Museum attests to that fact. Prior to the pandemic, it received 400,000 people a year; now, 260,000 come annually. Those figures surpass those of the city’s other museums. You can see the differences at a glance; in other institutions, you can enjoy the rooms in solitude, while the public flocks to the one dedicated to explaining the JFK assassination. There, they read the posters, watch the videos and look at the pieces in the collection; the latter includes the horseshoe of one of the horses that pulled the hearse carrying the president’s coffin on the day of his funeral, on November 25, 1963.
A block away from the museum, in an even more solitary spot (except when groups of tourists arrive to make their pilgrimages to the places that pay tribute to Kennedy), there is his memorial, a minimalist white concrete cube built by another Pritzker Prize winner, Philip Johnson, who received the first award. The memorial is an open tomb; according to the guidebooks, it is uncovered so that JFK’s spirit can be free. There will be those who believe in free spirits, but it also provides a space free of noise, a quiet place where Dallas’s constant traffic is hardly noticeable.
But the president is not the only one remembered in Dallas. The antagonist of November 22, Oswald, has his own places in the city. In the movie theater he went to that afternoon, before he was arrested, the seat in which he sat is preserved. He snuck in, and the police were notified. The Texas Theatre still exists, although it has been converted into a bar and movie theater; this weekend, the documentary Carlos: The Santana Journey is playing. The bar opens at seven in the evening; before that time, the area is quite empty. In its day, it was the largest theater outside Dallas and also the first that had air conditioning, which is appreciated in Dallas’s weather. Clearly, the area has changed in the last 60 years. Now, one of the neighboring businesses is a store that sells quinceañera [15th-birthday celebrations] dresses, the sequins of which you see competing in the window with the neon lights of the theater. That only goes to show how the city has evolved; here, the Latin American community, especially Mexicans and Central Americans, is very large.
However, the house where Oswald lived has remained like a time capsule; it is a 20-minute walk from the movie theater (if anyone walks in Dallas). Outside, it has a porch and a small garden in front; there is no fence to prevent the curious from entering the yard. The sign indicates that this house was the murderer’s residence—he rented a small room that barely fits a single bed and a closet. The sign notes that access to Oswald’s room is by appointment only and provides a telephone number; it also indicates the schedule. The admission price, which is not listed on the sign, is $30 (about €28). The house is now owned by Patricia Hall, the granddaughter of the owner in the 1960s. She met Oswald as a child; in 1963, she was 11 years old. She says that he didn’t cause problems as a tenant, and her family found it hard to believe that this young man had assassinated the president. (That always happens; murderers do not have tattoos on their faces to indicate that they are assassins). With Oswald, it was the typical “he always waved.”
When Oswald was arrested he said, “I’m a patsy.” He never confirmed that he killed JFK. On the morning of November 24, when Oswald was being transferred from police headquarters to prison, Jack Ruby—a man known to the police for his nighttime business and links to the Mafia—shot and killed him. The television was broadcasting it and his death was seen live on air. That was the end of Oswald and the beginning of more conspiracy theories. The place where all that happened is today the parking lot of the Law School; it isn’t open to the public, although work is being done to make it visitable as well.
The hat and white suit of the policeman who accompanied Oswald when he was killed can be seen in the museum, as can the gray Fedora that Ruby wore. The museum director, Nicola Longford, says that they are working to make the museum bilingual (English and Spanish). They’re also working to expand the museum’s objectives: to examine JFK’s life, legacy and assassination and the consequences and to encourage intergenerational dialogue. To this end, the museum exhibits photos, news items, trial transcripts, reports, recordings and curious objects such as the dinner plate that was left waiting for the president who never arrived.
The collection contains 95,000 pieces, including explanatory panels, videos and audios that are intermingled with each other. When you visit, you will hear a voice that says multiple times that the president was shot in Dealey Plaza, right at the X that you can see through the windows. And the images of those days that shaped the history of the United States are repeated on different screens. The number of times the president’s November 25 funeral is shown perhaps borders on sentimentality; it exhibits images of the immutable Jackie Kennedy and her children, Caroline and John—who turned three years old that day—including the little boy’s famous salute to his father’s coffin. This gesture has been immortalized in a clay figurine that has been reproduced as a souvenir ever since then; of course, there is one in the museum.
Sentimentality aside, people who love information and cameras can enjoy the first teletype that said the president had been “seriously wounded” and models of the 12 cameras that recorded or photographed the president’s motorcade, which is presented along with a map that illustrates where each one was in order to analyze the images they captured. There’s also a model that reproduces the square where the events took place to scale, and the instrument the Warren Commission used to understand and explain the trajectory of the bullets, in the absence of more advanced technology. In the museum, you can see how the presidential motorcade turned at the intersection of Houston and Elm Street and began the nightmare that is still being relived and rethought 60 years later. And not all the files have even been declassified yet.
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