DALLAS – A day before Dallas will pause to observe the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, the crowds already began to gather in Dealey Plaza.
Some people came to leave flowers, some to examine the grassy knoll, some to visit the former Texas School Book Depository, where Lee Harvey Oswald built his sniper’s nest. By early Thursday afternoon, more than 1,000 people milled about the plaza in downtown Dallas.
Gayle Newman, 72, who witnessed the assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, had come to Dealey Plaza with her family. “I’ve never seen so many people here at one time,” she said.
Today will be the first time the city of Dallas officially observes the anniversary. The program, scheduled to begin at 11:30 a.m. Central time, is expected to include readings from Kennedy’s speeches by historian David McCullough, a performance by the U.S. Naval Academy men’s glee club (a nod to Kennedy’s naval service) and bells tolling across the city at 12:30 p.m. – the time Kennedy was shot – followed by a moment of silence.
Thursday was proclaimed a day of service, and volunteers across the Dallas area prepared meals for the needy, planted trees and visited seniors at nursing homes. The day dawned overcast, just as it did 50 years ago. But unlike the day of the assassination, the fog rarely cleared, obscuring downtown skyscrapers and casting a pall over the day.
Visitors were drawn to the plaza from elsewhere in Texas, out of state and overseas. The afternoon took on an odd carnival atmosphere. Vendors sold JFK memorabilia, bagpipers played and protesters arrived toting signs, including one that read, “CIA killed JFK.” An Elvis impersonator mingled with the crowd, as did a man wrapped in an American flag, another in a cloak. By day’s end, the crowd turned raucous, with protesters chanting, “No more lies!”
Many people had mixed emotions about the anniversary.
“It feels wrong to say we’re excited. We feel more privileged to be here,” said Suzie Flood, 34, who had traveled to Dallas from Dublin, Ireland. “It’s paying homage to him – like going to the graveyard.”
She grew up hearing stories from her father about the time he served the Kennedys as a wait staff member during their 1963 visit with the president of Ireland.
“It’s a huge deal for us to be here,” Flood said as other visitors snapped photographs of a few bouquets surrounding a historic plaque at the foot of the grassy knoll.
Among those examining the plaque was Connie Clark, of Grants Pass, Ore.
Clark, 67, grew up in Downey, Calif., where she later taught high school. Her yearbook was dedicated to Kennedy, and each November for a decade she taught her senior English classes the biography of Jacqueline Kennedy.
Tickets for the city’s event had been distributed by lottery, with 5,000 available to the public. Clark didn’t enter the lottery, but she planned to get as close as she could today, perhaps watching on one of the large screens set up around town.
Clark surveyed the plaza Thursday, pointing out the spots where white Xs had been painted in the street to mark where President Kennedy had been shot. The blacktop was being torn up and replaced by city crews to remove any possible trip hazards. Across the street in the plaza’s grassy expanse, crews were setting up risers, stages and striped backdrops for today’s events.
“It just brings it all back,” Clark said.
Behind her in the pergola, Hermilo Sosa, 27, of Dallas was surveying the scene with his wife and 3-year-old daughter. “I brought my daughter here to witness history,” Sosa said, adding that Kennedy’s speeches inspired him, particularly the 1961 address in which he spoke of “secret societies” and advocated for government transparency.
Sosa was aware that for years after the assassination, Dallas struggled with being dubbed “the city of hate.” As out-of-town visitors arrive for the anniversary, he said, “I hope they think Dallas is a good place.”
Farther north, at the historic Adolphus hotel, about 400 assassination conspiracy theorists from around the country had gathered for the annual convention of their group, JFK Lancer.
The group’s president, Debra Conway, said that this year’s convention was sold out, and that instead of their annual ceremony in Dealey Plaza, group members planned to watch the city’s event on television at the hotel, where they would later hold their own observance.
Back at Dealey Plaza on Thursday afternoon, Jeff Gold, a lawyer from Long Beach, Calif., was showing off his tattoos of the Kennedys (John, Jackie and Robert), whom he called “liberal icons,” as well as a quote tattooed on his left forearm from a Kennedy speech that began, “What kind of peace do I mean, and what kind of peace do we seek?”
Gold, 59, said his view of the assassination evolved from believing Oswald was responsible, to doubt, to conspiracy theories, and back to where he started.
He planned to return today to see as much as he could. Being at Dealey Plaza, he said, “has made personal what’s historic.”
“There’s a mixed feeling about this – we’re commemorating a murder. It’s both interesting and gauche. But that’s what makes America great.”