Classy ways for Dallas to honor JFK on 50th anniversary

May 8, 2012

by Robert McEnany, Dallas Morning News

This fall, God willing, I will travel north to attend my high school class reunion in Connecticut. The big one. The 50th anniversary of our graduation.

Our class was, and I suspect still is, an eclectic bunch. Born near the end of World War II, we were a generation on the cusp between our parents’ solid, conventional “G.I. Generation” values, and the self-absorbed and freer-spirited baby boom generation that followed.

To the young adults of that era, John Kennedy was the antithesis of the dour, rigid, authoritarian politicians of our parents’ generation, an emblem of our highest personal aspirations and the embodiment of our bright national future.

He was, even before it became a word, telegenic and young himself. He had wit. He had style. His campaign rhetoric, inaugural address and presidential presence convinced us that our nation could dream the biggest dreams, and that the youth of America would not be dismissed as outsiders in the process of achieving them.

Then he was killed. 

For some, the assassination was the catalyst that changed the course of their lives. One classmate, Gerry, has told me that within days of President Kennedy’s death he had ditched his plans for a career in academia and enrolled in the Peace Corps. He went on to live out a satisfying career as a social worker.

Kennedy’s murder was a terrible, shocking tragedy, but it was only the beginning of a seven-year arc of disorienting cultural upheaval.

The killings of Malcolm X , Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Riots and looting in major cities, prompting the mayor of Chicago to issue a “shoot to kill” order. The Vietnam War, from which two of my classmates never returned. “Days of Rage” outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention , which spiraled into a “police riot.” The 1970 Kent State massacre, in which we watched as our own soldiers shot and killed our own kids. And it was all experienced collectively, close-up and almost in real time, through the ascendant television news.

For us, 1962 was the last year our future seemed clear and certain.

Now, as the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death approaches, the media will once again focus their critical lens on Dealey Plaza, the Texas School Book Depository and Dallas.

How can we make sure the picture that emerges reflects the Dallas that is, rather than the Dallas that was in 1963?

These are my suggestions:

First, acknowledge the event in its historic context. The assassination, together with the violent events of the following seven years, were evidence of a seismic shift in the country’s culture.

Second, focus on John F. Kennedy’s substantial legacy. The space program, the Peace Corps, civil rights progress, and not least, his willingness to use the power of his presidency to reach out with help for the humble and powerless. The young adults who revered John Kennedy then are the old codgers who revere his ideals today.

Third, be inclusive. Nobody could argue that street vendors hawking “newsletters” and cheap memorabilia do not belong in Dealey Plaza, especially during the days set aside for remembrance. But pretty much everybody else does belong there, regardless of politics or conspiracy beliefs or motivation. Attempts to control every minute of those days, and every expression of those emotions, could spark the very confrontations Dallas is hoping to avoid.

Dallas would do well to honor President Kennedy’s memory by giving everyone who chooses to visit Dallas and Dealey Plaza the freedom to gather, remember and reflect as they choose.

The graduates of the Class of ’62 who are part of that crowd will be the first to step up and say “thank you.”

Robert McEnany is an advertising executive who lives in Bryan Place near downtown Dallas. He is also a Community Voices volunteer columnist. His email is robert.mcenany@att.net.

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