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Why JFK Died in Dallas

A new book by a journalism professor documents the hysteria and fear that culminated in Kennedy’s assassination 50 years ago. Read an excerpt and see archival JFK photographs.

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Nov. 22 marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy‘s assassination in Dallas, a tragedy that still haunts the city. In their new book,”Dallas 1963″ journalism professor Bill Minutaglio and writer Steven L. Davis document the hatred, hysteria and fear that culminated in Kennedy’s death.

“Dallas had just simply become, in an almost initially unlikely way, the headquarters of the anti-Kennedy, ‘Let’s overthrow Kennedy’ movement,” Minutaglio said in an interview with NPR. “He was perceived to be a traitor. He was a socialist, he was on bended knee to so many different entities communism, socialism and even the pope.”

One of Kennedy’s loudest opponents was Ted Dealey, the publisher of the Dallas Morning News, which printed a full-page advertisement attacking the president. Dealey had also previously flown to the White House to confront Kennedy directly.

And while Dallas will be forever linked to Kennedy, Austin was the place for events unfulfilled. Following the stop in Dallas, there was to be a reception for President Kennedy at the Governor’s Mansion and a fundraising gala at Austin’s Municipal Auditorium. Austin hotels were full of politicos who had poured in from across the state. The decorations were in place and the barbecue was cooking.

Below, read an excerpt from “Dallas 1963,” accompanied by JFK photographs and memorabilia from UT’s Briscoe Center for American History and the LBJ Presidential Library.

JFK motorcade in Dallas

President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy’s car turned the corner toward the Texas School Book Depository on Nov. 22, 1963, Dallas. [Copyright Darryl Heikes. Heikes (Darryl) Photographs; Courtesy Briscoe Center for American History] 

An Excerpt from “Dallas 1963”

John and Jackie Kennedy return to their suite at the Hotel Texas at 10 a.m. In fortyfive minutes they will leave for Dallas. Kennedy’s aide Kenny O’Donnell comes into the suite with a copy of the Dallas Morning News. The president skimmed the headlines earlier, but didn’t look through the whole paper. O’Donnell shows him the fullpage advertisement denouncing him on page 14. Kennedy reads every word, grimacing. Finished, he hands the paper over to Jackie for her inspection.

He shakes his head and says to O’Donnell: “Can you imagine a paper doing a thing like that?”

JFK Wanted for Treason flyer

A flyer that circulated around Dallas prior to President Kennedy’s arrival, claiming he was wanted for treason for “Betraying the Constitution” and for giving “support and encouragement to the Communist inspired racial riots,” among other supposed violations. 

Then he turns to Jackie: “Oh, you know, we’re heading into nut country today.”

Kennedy begins pacing around the hotel room. He stops in front of his wife: “You know, last night would have been a hell of a night to assassinate a President.”

She gives him a look.

“I mean it,” he continues. “There was the rain, and the night, and we were all getting jostled. Suppose a man had a pistol in a briefcase.”

He points at a wall with his finger and pretends to shoot: “Then he could have dropped the gun and the briefcase and melted away in the crowd.”

A few weeks earlier, he’d met in the White House with Jim Bishop, the author of “The Day Lincoln Was Shot.” Kennedy said his feelings about assassination were similar to Lincoln’s:

“Any man who is willing to exchange his life for mine can do so.”

And now, the ad in Dealey’s paper has brought back to the surface a reality he tries to suppress there are people in America who would like to see him dead. He walks over to a window and looks outside.

“It would not be a very difficult job to shoot the president of the United States,” he muses aloud. “All you’d have to do is get up in a high building with a highpowered rifle with a telescopic sight, and there’s nothing anybody could do.”

From Love Field, Secret Service Agent Winston Lawson is calling the Hotel Texas. He says that the weather appears to be clearing a bit. He wonders whether or not to secure the bubbletop to the presidential limousine. Kenny O’Donnell knows that the president never likes to ride under it unless it’s absolutely necessary.

“If the weather is clear and it is not raining,” O’Donnell says, “have that bubbletop off.”

In Dallas, people are tuning in to KPCN, the latest radio station to broadcast H. L. Hunt’s  “Life Line” program, joining other local outlets that already air the show. As families race to get ready to go see the president’s motorcade, they can hear the announcer saying:

You would not be able to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” or state your Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag, because our Stars and Stripes would be replaced by the Hammer and Sickle. You would not be able to celebrate Independence Day, Memorial Day, or Labor Day. You would not be able to observe Thanksgiving as we know it today, thanking the Lord for his blessings and fruitful harvest. You would not be able to celebrate any holiday of freedom.

If communism were to come to America, never again would you be able to go off on hunting trips with friends. Private ownership and private use of firearms is strictly forbidden. No firearms are permitted the people, because they would then have weapons with which to rise up against the oppressors.

Inside the Trade Mart, all of the businesses are closed. Police are stationed at all entrances, corridors, balconies, and stairways. They are also watching the meal preparations in the kitchen. Seventy plainclothes cops are also on duty, and many of these will be dispersed among the luncheon crowd.

It’s not just the police who are providing security. Civilians have also been pressed into service. The local newsman who filmed the attack on Adlai Stevenson has been invited to the presidential luncheon. He has also been asked quietly, secretly, to keep an eye out for anyone he might recognize from the Stevenson incident, and to immediately report them to the FBI or Secret Service. Outside, dozens of police officers are on high alert. Cops are also posted on nearby rooftops.

JFK speaking in Ft. Worth

President Kennedy speaking to a large crowd in a parking lot across from Hotel Texas. Standing behind him (left to right) are state Senator Don Kennard, U.S. Senator Ralph Yarborough, Texas Governor John Connally, and Vice President Lyndon Johnson. [Courtesy Briscoe Center for American History] 
The mink-coat mob in Dallas

Left: Congressman Bruce Alger protesting LBJ in Dallas during the “mink coat mob” shortly before the 1960 presidential election. Right: Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson move slowly through the crowd during Dallas’s infamous “mink coat mob.” [Credit: Photographs by John Mazziotta, Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library.] 

Despite the heavy security, a small handful of determined protesters has arrived from the Dallasbased Indignant White Citizens Council. Each person is carrying an antiKennedy placard: YANKEE GO HOME; KENNEDY, KING, AND CASTRO; and HAIL CAESAR. Some of the signs have small Confederate flags attached to them. The protesters have pieces of tape over their mouths: “To show that we are being muzzled.”

In New York, Stanley Marcus has just sat down to lunch inside the chandeliered Le Pavillon, an exclusive French restaurant that is also a favorite of the Kennedy family. He has ordered calf ‘s liver lyonnaise along with a bottle of French burgundy for himself and his guests: a merchant from Sweden and a young woman from Australia who has recently entered the fashion merchandising business in New York. Although Marcus is fifteen hundred miles away from Dallas, he remains extremely concerned about the president’s visit. He has left instructions with his office how to reach him in case of an emergency.

The flight to Dallas will only take thirteen minutes, and during the brief upanddown journey the president is at the rear of the plane talking to his aides and complaining about the negative press coverage in Texas.

“It’s bad,” he says, holding a copy of one newspaper up for his team to see. “What’s worse, it’s inaccurate.”

General Godfrey McHugh, Kennedy’s personal military aide and the commander of Air Force one, comes to the tailarea compartment and overhears Kennedy.

“If you think that’s bad, Mr. President, wait ’til you see The Dallas News,” says McHugh.

“I have seen it,” replies Kennedy in a thick voice.

The men watch as Kennedy paces the plane and then pauses. “What kind of journalism do you call the Dallas Morning News?” he asks angrily. “You know who’s responsible for that ad? Dealey. Remember him? After that exhibition he put on in the White House I did a little checking on him. He runs around calling himself a war correspondent, and everybody in Dallas believes him.”

And then Kennedy mutters a curse.

Lee Harvey Oswald and his sniper

Left: Lee Harvey Oswald’s sniper nest in the Texas School Book Depository building, photographed within hours of the assassination. [Copyright Flip Schulke. Flip Schulke (Flip) Photographic Archive; Courtesy Briscoe Center for American History] Right: Oswald is held for questions during a press briefing after the assassination. [Copyright Shel Hershorn. Hershorn (Shel) Photograph Collection; Courtesy Briscoe Center for American History] 
LBJ swearing in

Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson being sworn in as president aboard Air Force One, with Lady Bird and Jackie watching on either side. 

By eleven thirty, the earlymorning clouds have blown away and the sun is shining brilliantly under bright blue skies as Air Force one completes its short flight, preparing to land at Love Field. Aboard the plane, everyone’s mood has lifted with the skies. Kennedy’s staff people beam at each other. They have experienced this phenomenon over and over. The president will fly into a cloudy or rainy place and suddenly the skies clear in time for his landing. They even have a name for this: they call it Kennedy Weather.

As the plane taxis to a halt, the tarmac is still wet from the earlymorning rain. A crowd of thousands is gathered behind a chainlink fence. Many people have parked their cars right up at the edge of the boundary and are standing on top for a better view. This is an unusually large crowd for an airport arrival. The only question is: What kind of response will the president receive here?

Jackie emerges first from Air Force One, glancing up shyly as a huge cheer rises from the packed crowd. Her pink jacket reflects the sun, and her earrings sparkle brilliantly. In a moment she is joined by her husband, who is smiling broadly. The sunlight is dazzling, and golden rays seem to land directly on the First Couple, illuminating them with a special glow. More raucous cheering erupts. People are stamping their feet, jumping and screaming. There is mad applause for the Kennedys.

Members of the White House press corps glance at each other. This isn’t the reception they expected to see in Dallas. Earlier they’d been joking about the crackpots in the city, offering each other bets on when the shooting will start.

JFK prepared remarks for Austin speech

Prepared remarks referencing UT football and Coach Darrell Royal for President Kennedy for a planned event in Austin that never took place. The remarks were written by staffers in Gov. Connally’s office to add local color to his tour of Texas cities. [From Connally press secretary Julian Read’s collection at the Briscoe Center for American History. Read’s book “JFK’s Final Hours in Texas” is an eyewitness account of the JFK assassination.] 
University of Texas flag at half-staff after JFK assassination

A United States flag in front of the University of Texas Tower flies at half-staff following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. [UT Texas Student Publications; Courtesy Briscoe Center for American History] 
Gov. Connally wire report

A wire report from Connally press secretary Julian Read’s makeshift desk at Parkland Hospital. [Julian Read Collection; Courtesy Briscoe Center for American History] 

A receiving line of local dignitaries is awaiting the Kennedys at the base of the steps on the airport tarmac. Mayor Earle Cabell’s wife, Dearie, presents Jackie with a bouquet of red roses. The original plan called for yellow roses, but every yellow rose in the state has already been spoken for, including the five thousand already set up at the Trade Mart.

The crowd is screaming so loudly that it’s hard for those in the receiving line to make themselves heard. As the president is greeted by Police Chief Jesse Curry, Kennedy leans in close and says:

“This doesn’t look like an antiKennedy crowd.”

Others descending from Air Force One aren’t so sure. Their practiced eyes spot a few discordant notes among the welcoming signs: YANKEE GO HOME AND TAKE YOUR EQUALS WITH YOU and HELP JFK STAMP OUT DEMOCRACY. Another, referring to presumptive Republican nominee Barry Goldwater, reads LET’S BARRY KING JOHN. Most disturbing is the small, misspelled handlettered sign on cardboard that reads YOUR A TRAITOR. One man standing high above everyone else is waving a giant Confederate flag.

Congressman Henry B. González of San Antonio spots the oversize flag: “I sure wish somebody had invented a spit proof mask . . . I forgot my bulletproof vest.”

Some of the reporters, studying the map of the motorcade route for this visit, notice that one of the  streets they’ll be riding on is turtle Creek Boulevard. They begin to speculate what might happen if the president passes by General Edwin Walker’s house. It is determined that the route will actually miss Walker’s residence by about ten blocks.

Secret Service agents are tailing Kennedy closely, studying the faces behind the fence. Most people are smiling and shrieking in delight at the sight of the First Couple. The agents are guiding the Kennedys toward the presidential limousine so that the motorcade can begin. The president, however, breaks out of line and walks toward the crowd, which grows frantic at his approach. Grinning broadly, he reaches over the fence and begins shaking hands with people, thanking them for their support.

The First Lady follows her husband, and Chief Curry notices that two red buds have fallen from her bouquet. He leans over to pick them up. He plans to give them to his nineyearold daughter as a souvenir. Curry follows the Kennedys over to the fence. A stranger who noticed his action asks if he can have one of the buds to take home for his daughter. Without hesitation the chief hands one over.

The electric charge between Kennedy and the crowd is unmistakable. Reporters observe that even some of those holding up protest signs seem charmed by the man. The huge Confederate flag, which was once being waved defiantly, has now drooped to halfmast. Much to the dismay of his Secret Service, the president continues to work the crowd for several more minutes.

“Kennedy is showing he is not afraid,” writes one reporter in his notebook.

Kennedy finally stops shaking hands at five minutes to noon, and the presidential motorcade prepares to depart. It is only a threemile drive to the Trade Mart, but the procession will take a long, tenmile route that loops through downtown in order to maximize Dallas’s exposure to the president.

A car driven by a Dallas police officer will lead the motorcade. Following him are two groups of motorcycle officers who will form a flying wedge to keep curbside crowds off the street. Next is a white Ford driven by Chief Curry. Riding with Curry is Secret Service Agent Winston Lawson, who has coordinated security. In the backseat are the county sheriff and the head of the Secret Service branch in Dallas.

Five car lengths behind is the presidential limousine, a midnightblue custombuilt 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible. The car weighs nearly four tons and is over twenty feet long. It averages less than five miles per gallon. The limousine was flown in the evening before on a cargo plane and guarded overnight by police.

Texas Governor John Connally and his wife, Nellie, sit in the middle jump seat. The president and First Lady climb into the backseat. The rear seat is raised by a hydraulic lift so that it rides several inches higher than the jump seat in order to give the people of Dallas a better view of the president.

At the rear corners of the limousine are four motorcycle officers. Their main job is to keep the crowds from surging forward toward the president. Traveling directly behind the limo is the Secret Service car: a ninepassenger 1955 Cadillac convertible with running boards for the agents to stand on. Behind the Secret Service car is the vehicle carrying Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson. Finally, there are other cars bringing up the rear of the motorcade and carrying congressmen, Mayor Earle Cabell, and other officials. Two press buses are at the very back. As the procession gets under way, the motorcade spreads out over ten blocks.

Leaving the airport, the cars turn onto Lemmon Avenue, the main route toward downtown. Few people are out on the streets this far from the city center. The motorcade speeds along at thirtyfive miles per hour. The plan is to slow down to twenty miles per hour in the crowded areas.

During this relatively deserted stretch, Jackie amuses herself by waving gaily to the line of billboards that greets their entrance into the city, advertising everything from hamburgers to whiskey. Now that the sun is out, the temperature has become very warm. Mrs. Kennedy reaches into her purse and puts on her sunglasses. Her husband reminds her to take them off they need to be able to make eye contact with people, he explains.

About two miles into the trip, Kennedy spots a group of schoolchildren holding a long banner that reads: PLEASE STOP AND SHAKE OUR HANDS.

Kennedy calls ahead to the driver. “Let’s stop here, Bill.”

The excited children rush forward and swarm the car. A woman with the children keeps shouting: “It worked! Our sign worked!”

The streets are gradually becoming more packed in anticipation of the presidential parade. Many people have parked their cars along the rightofway and are standing alongside them, waving wildly as the motorcade passes by. After several more blocks the president spots a group of nuns lined up to see him. He can’t resist the nuns. He orders the motorcade halted again so that he can shake hands with them.

Now the motorcade is approaching Turtle Creek Boulevard. At this intersection is Robert E. Lee Park, with the bronze statue of the Confederate general. A half mile to the left is General Walker’s home with its looming American flags. The procession turns right and passes under a twentytwostory luxury apartment highrise, a modernist monolith billed as the “tallest, largest, and most luxurious apartment ever erected west of the Mississippi.”

Inside the building, on the nineteenth floor, Ted Dealey is making himself a drink. He has just returned from a checkup with his doctor and he’s changed out of his business clothing. He’s now in a sport shirt and he plans to relax. He has no intention of attending the Trade Mart luncheon on the president’s behalf. He’s all too happy to leave that duty to his son.

Dealey is looking out a corner window at the motorcade. It’s hard to make out much detail from so high up, but he sees a flash of pink down below. That, he figures, must be Jackie Kennedy. He walks back into his den and snaps on the television, where the motorcade is being broadcast live to the entire city.

Though downtown is still three miles away, the sidewalks are filling up with spectators. In some places people are standing three and fourdeep, cheering wildly as Jack and Jackie pass by. No organized demonstrations are seen, but there are a few individual protesters. One man holds a sign announcing: I HOLD YOU JFK AND YOUR BLIND SOCIALISM IN COMPLETE CONTEMPT. Others along the way proudly brandish homemade BARRY GOLDWATER FOR PRESIDENT signs.

Main Street is only a mile away, and the crowds are growing even thicker. People are now standing five and sixdeep. The smiles on the president and First Lady grow even bigger. It is clear by now that they are experiencing the largest, friendliest crowd of the entire Texas trip. The reporters riding with the motorcade are surprised by this massive outpouring of public goodwill. This is not what they expected in Dallas. Kennedy’s aides are not just relieved, they are nearly giddy with delight.

Excerpted from the book DALLAS 1963 by  Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis.  Copyright © 2013 by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis.  Reprinted by permission of Twelve.  All rights reserved.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Steven L. Davis as a 1989 UT journalism graduate. He is a graduate of Texas State University in San Marcos, where he is the curator at the Wittliff Collections.