DALLAS — Driving through Dallas, you might not realize you’d just driven over the spot where John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
It’s a street like any other, unceremoniously adorned with two x’s in the road where JFK was shot twice.
The infamous “grassy knoll” is near a stately pergola dedicated to Dallas’ founder, John Neely Bryan, but the knoll itself is a grassy hill on the side of the road, a hill not unlike the thousands of others I’ve driven past in my life.
The building where Lee Harvey Oswald fired his fatal shots, the Texas School Book Depository, is similarly unassuming. Compared to the towering Dallas skyscrapers in the background, the brown, Romanesque revival style building almost seems quaint.
It’s all so very normal. But if you visit these average sights armed with the latest knowledge of JFK’s assassination (thanks, Wikipedia) as I did, they become something more than the sum of their parts. It becomes a historical pilgrimage to one of our nation’s unholiest of sites.
I’m in Dallas to cover the AU women’s basketball team’s national championship bout against the University of Minnesota Duluth on Saturday, at 3:30 p.m. eastern time, so I had to sneak in some museum visits while I’m here.
But first, here’s a quick refresher for anyone who hasn’t sat in a history classroom in a while.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy narrowly defeated Richard Nixon to claim the 35th presidency in 1960. He was the youngest president ever elected and also the first Catholic.
JFK was something of a revelation for the U.S. at a time when the median age was 29.3 years old. He was young, optimistic, glamorous, charming, and he had big ideas.
He wanted to put a man on the moon, he wanted to instill the younger generation with a sense of great purpose and national duty, he wanted to change the trajectory of history.
During his short presidency, he presided over the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. He signed the first nuclear weapons treaty and created the Peace Corps.
Some of his big domestic plans, like his New Frontier and sweeping civil rights reforms, stalled in Congress. It would take his assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, for many of his domestic policies to get going.
On that day, JFK was traveling through Dallas in a presidential motorcade. He insisted on having his vehicle’s bubble top open, so the crowds could see him better. He was visiting Texas on a multi-city tour to shore up support among conservative southern Democrats who were often skeptical of his policies.
There’s much controversy over the facts of that day, but here’s the version put forth by the Warren Commission, charged with investigating the crime.
As his motorcade drove through Dealey Plaza, down Elm Street, he was shot once in the neck. That bullet passed through Kennedy and into Texas Governor John Connally, injuring him. A few seconds later, JFK was shot fatally in the head.
The culprit was Lee Harvey Oswald, a former Marine and a Soviet-sympathizer. That morning, he carried a large paper bag containing a rifle into his workplace, the Texas School Book Depository, built a sniper’s nest out of boxes in the corner of the building’s sixth floor, and killed JFK.
Immediately after the shooting, JFK was rushed to Parkland Hospital. Meanwhile, Oswald fled the scene and hailed a taxi. At 1 p.m., Kennedy was pronounced dead. Three minutes later, Oswald’s employer conducted a roll call and noticed him missing.
At 1:15 p.m., Oswald fatally shot police officer J.D. Tippit, who approached Oswald because he matched the description of the suspected assassin. Oswald fled again, this time to the Texas Theatre in Oak Cliffe. Around 1:50 p.m., police arrested him.
Less than two days later, Oswald was shot and killed by nightclub owner Jack Ruby before police could nail down a definitive motive for JFK’s assassination.
Oswald’s sudden death, the chaos after the assassination, conflicting witness accounts, and the rumor of multiple shooters turned the assassination into an everlasting source of conjecture in the years following. But those theories are for another time and another website.
The city of Dallas has done a remarkable job of preserving the landscape visible in photographs of that sorrow-filled day. If you stand facing the grassy knoll and the book depository and mentally block out the modern cars passing by and the phone buzzing in your pocket, you’re almost transported to that day nearly 60 years ago when the nation’s normalcy was shattered.
As I went through the Sixth Floor Museum, learning about JFK’s life, scornfully glancing at the spot where Oswald took his shots, it reminded me of how life could change in an instant.
By all accounts, Nov. 22, 1963 could have been a normal day. JFK could have made his rounds in Dallas, given a speech, and then continued on to Austin the next day. Instead of wall-to-wall assassination coverage, the American people could watch As The World Turns. Dealey Plaza could stay known only as the birthplace of Dallas, instead of a place of great tragedy.
But that’s not what happened. The president was killed, and the world shook. Even in 2023, if you visit Dealy Plaza and the Sixth Floor Museum, you can still feel the aftershocks.