Dallas’ JFK museum to oversee Dealey Plaza events for 50th anniversary of assassination

April 20, 2012

DAVID FLICK, Staff Writer, dflick@dallasnews.com

Brad Loper/Staff Photographer

On Nov. 22, 2013, Dealey Plaza is expected to swarm with television cameras.

For the past few months, officials at the adjacent Sixth Floor Museum have been quietly at work, trying to ensure that what those cameras capture won’t embarrass the city.

For one thing, they have been conducting a campaign to raise $2.2 million to complete the restoration of Dealey Plaza in time for the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

And to avoid the carnival atmosphere that has often prevailed at previous anniversaries on the plaza, museum officials are planning to take over commemoration activities there.

“We have reserved Dealey Plaza for that date,” said Nicola Longford, the museum’s executive director. “I think, for the 50th anniversary, we have an opportunity to offer a dignified, appropriate event for the city of Dallas.” 

That has not always been the case.

Many people assume the annual gatherings at the plaza — which have attracted hundreds and, in some years, thousands of spectators — have had some official sanction. But the museum’s decision actually reverses a hands-off policy by both the museum and the city of Dallas that has lasted decades.

Only once before, when the plaza was dedicated as a National Historic Landmark district in 1993, has there been an official ceremony commemorating the assassination.

Museum and city officials have said in the past that by avoiding such events, they were honoring the Kennedy family’s wishes that the anniversary receive no official recognition in Dallas.

In the organizational vacuum that resulted, ordinary people who came to the plaza to quietly honor the slain president found activities there often dominated by conspiracy theorists, performance artists and assorted publicity-seekers.

Critics charged that on what should be a solemn day, a circus atmosphere has sometimes prevailed on the plaza.

“I don’t think we know yet what will take place. It may be simply a moment of silence,” Longford said of the 50th anniversary commemoration. “It will absolutely not be a festival. It will be a dignified and appropriate commemoration.”

Museum officials have been working with some of the city’s cultural institutions to help commemorate the event, but Longford said such talks were in the early stages and declined to elaborate.

She said museum officials contacted the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, chaired by Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline, about the decision to conduct an official commemoration in Dealey Plaza.

Longford declined to characterize the reaction, but added, “I don’t think the Kennedy family has changed their stand.”

In response to a request for comment by The Dallas Morning News, a foundation spokesman emailed a brief statement that officials of the Kennedy Presidential Library and Kennedy Library Foundation were still in the early stages of planning, “but how others choose to mark the anniversary will be up to them.”

Among those supporting the museum’s takeover of the ceremonies — perhaps surprisingly — is Debra Conway, president of JFK Lancer, the organization that for most of the past two decades has held the speaking permit for the plaza on the anniversary.

“I’m kind of glad,” she said of the museum’s plans. “I don’t think a lot of those things that have happened will happen when the museum takes over. I think they’ll have a ceremony that won’t get out of hand.”

Conway describes her Southlake-based organization as a clearinghouse for information on the JFK assassination and other topics.

She acknowledges that representatives affiliated with her group have used the commemorations to espouse conspiracy theories. But she said the comments were respectful, and she blamed any inappropriate behavior on other participants.

Despite having reserved the plaza, she said, her group has had no power to enforce who speaks.

“We’ve tried to stop them and they ignore us,” she said.

Museum officials are hoping that the fundraising drive to upgrade Dealey Plaza will also help project a better image of the city.

“When they broadcast from the plaza, we don’t want Dallas to be embarrassed by what they see in the background,” Longford said.

The work was envisioned as the second phase in the restoration of the plaza, which has deteriorated over the decades. The $500,000 to complete the first phase came from a 2003 bond issue.

Phase I restored the fountains and peristyles along Houston Street, the most visible part of the plaza. The partial restoration may have worked too well, according to Willis Winters, assistant director of capital projects for the Dallas Park and Recreation Department.

“Phase II was never included in the 2006 bond program, probably because what we did in 2003 looked so good,” he said.

The city has pledged to kick in $750,000 for the second phase, which will improve paving, lighting, irrigation and signs, and — in the most visible change — will restore the pergolas on top of the grassy knoll.

Phillip Jones, CEO of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, said JFK assassination anniversaries have always posed a challenge to people trying to draw visitors to the region.

The assassination is among the darkest days in the city’s history. On the other hand, there is no doubting that Dealey Plaza is a major tourist draw.

“I think it’s a balancing act,” he said. “I think the Sixth Floor Museum can celebrate the life of the president, but we’ll have to be very selective on how we promote it.”

The 50th anniversary will also mark a kind of watershed, he said. After five decades, the death of President John F. Kennedy is passing from being a personal memory to becoming a purely historical event.

“One of the things we need to do is to educate the younger generation,” Jones said. “I think it allows us to position ourselves as a new city, very different from what it was 50 years ago.

“There’s an opportunity there we haven’t had in a while.”

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