This essay first appeared in Sunday’s Dallas Morning News.
Mere moments after Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald, and two days after Oswald fired the shots that killed President John F. Kennedy, the professional football team from the city where the president was murdered took the field in Cleveland.
Back then, the Dallas Cowboys were not “America’s Team” — rather, they were a sad-sack franchise in the midst of a string of unsuccessful seasons after their founding in 1960. Added to the burdens of playing losing football was a far greater one that day on the shores of Lake Erie: representing Dallas, which stood accused of being an accomplice in the death of a president.
It is stunning that the National Football League actually played football just 48 hours after the assassination. Commissioner Pete Rozelle ordered the games to go on because, at the time, he believed that that was the way the slain president would have wanted it. Rozelle later came to realize he had erred, and it’s notable that the NFL, when faced with the calamity of Sept. 11 nearly four decades later, canceled its games scheduled for five days after that tragedy. So the Cowboys went to Cleveland and lost in front of a hostile, eerily quiet crowd; announcers were instructed to refer to the team only as the Cowboys, dropping the Dallas.
In the days and years after Nov. 22, 1963, anti-Dallas sentiment was rampant across the country. I saw it myself growing up in Norfolk, Va., and attending Catholic school there, where Dallas was cursed and condemned in the strongest terms. The president, who was visiting Dallas in part to help repair a breach between liberals and conservatives in the Texas Democratic Party, seemed to see a danger in visiting Dallas: “We’re heading into nut country today,” Kennedy told his wife, Jackie. After the assassination, nurses at Parkland Hospital asked the first lady if she wanted help getting cleaned up. “Absolutely not,” she said. “I want the world to see what Dallas has done to my husband.”
The murder of JFK was not the first, nor sadly the last, major American assassination. But it remains the only one where the location of the killing received outsize blame for what happened. That Abraham Lincoln was killed in Washington, or William McKinley in Buffalo, or Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis are merely minor details in the stories of those assassinations. Among all the places where important Americans were murdered over the history of the nation, Dallas stands alone in the dock, convicted in many people’s minds as having created the conditions that bred a monstrous act.
It was — and is — totally unfair.
As I point out in my book, The Kennedy Half Century, Dallas really was no more dangerous than any other city. In fact, Kennedy could have been — and almost was — assassinated in many other places. For instance, right before the 1960 election, two men with guns were arrested in separate incidents on their way to see JFK speak at Chicago Stadium; police later concluded that they did not intend to harm Kennedy, although the fact that they were able to get close to JFK with concealed weapons was an ignored warning of how vulnerable the soon-to-be-president was.
A genuine plot unfolded in Palm Beach, FL, in December 1960, when a disturbed 73-year-old man, Richard Pavlick, carefully planned an attack on Kennedy. Despite being known to the Secret Service, Pavlick was positioned to drive a car filled with explosives into Kennedy’s car, but the sight of Jackie with JFK gave him pause — he wanted to kill the president-elect, not his wife. Pavlick got near the president at least two other times before finally being apprehended.
Plots were uncovered in Miami, Chicago and other locations during JFK’s presidency. He and his family had made many enemies, from organized crime to anti-Castro Cubans, and the ’60s were proving to be a time of great social and political turmoil — a breeding ground of festering resentments among some groups and individuals.
These potential threats usually had nothing to do with the places where they occurred and, depending on which theory you embrace, either one or a few people were responsible for the assassination — and the likelihood is that none of them had any long-standing ties to Dallas. (Lee Harvey Oswald was a native of New Orleans who had lived in several places before moving to Dallas.)
After 50 years, we see the nuanced truth more clearly. Yes, there were obvious signs of hostility directed toward Kennedy in Dallas — the nasty newspaper editorials and advertisements, the signs at Love Field reading “Yankee Go Home” and “You’re a Traitor.” But there were many positive signs, too, and about 200,000 people turned out to cheer the president and first lady. Jackie Kennedy, whose fears about the trip were sadly proven correct, had asked her primary Secret Service agent about whether it was safe to travel there, and he replied that Dallas was probably no more dangerous than anyplace else.
In that, he was probably correct. Dallas did have a disturbing cadre of right-wing fanatics who hated African-Americans, the United Nations and most of the 20th century — possibly parts of the 19th as well. Some of them were influential leaders in government, the press and finance. But it wasn’t so different in much of the rest of the South, including my own city of Norfolk, where all public schools had been shuttered just a few years earlier in “Massive Resistance” to desegregation. Plenty of people and places with sin were casting stones at Dallas in 1963 and for years thereafter.
It’s also important to remember that Oswald was not a deranged right-winger. Rather, he was a card-carrying Communist who had defected for a time to the Soviet Union and tried to kill a right-wing segregationist general, Edwin Walker, before he shot Kennedy. Oswald had even once told his wife he was going to target former Vice President Richard Nixon. Murder was on his mind, and at least until JFK, his evil intent focused on conservatives.
In a larger sense, the insufficient security for presidents back in the early 1960s arguably made JFK’s assassination almost inevitable. Twelve Secret Service agents accompanied Kennedy in the Dallas motorcade, none clustered around his limousine, while he passed dozens of open windows in tall buildings and massive unscreened crowds that practically enveloped him on occasion. This was standard operating procedure; my research team has compiled photos and film of JFK at home and abroad on dozens of occasions that were much like in Dallas; in quite a few cases, Kennedy stands up in the limo for extended periods, making his body an even easier target. And amazingly, unlike FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who had an armored automobile, the president’s car was not bulletproof. Also unlike Hoover, Kennedy wanted crowds to see him clearly and closely. The political rule of the day was that people were less likely to vote against an officeholder they had “met” personally.
While the Secret Service liked to point to its perfect record in protecting presidents since its creation after the McKinley assassination in 1901, only through luck did credible assassination attempts against Presidents Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman all fail, not to mention a failed assassination attempt against former President Theodore Roosevelt when he was running on the Bull Moose ticket in 1912 (an assassin shot him, but a copy of a speech in Roosevelt’s pocket helped slow the bullet, which was never removed from his body).
It’s not unreasonable to say that, despite some elite hostility toward Kennedy in Dallas, the assassination occurring in Big D was as random as being struck by lightning. As we have come to realize more fully in our time, every community harbors disturbed or deeply angry individuals who can do unspeakable things when given the right stimulus and opportunity.
On Nov. 22, Dallas will memorialize President Kennedy’s death, and many will inevitably be reminded of the animus directed toward the city in the aftermath of the assassination. But Dallas bears no particular blame for the assassination, and it needs no absolution. Time, plus the massive growth of the area into a metropolitan behemoth with glittering jewels in the arts and sciences — not to mention a football team that came a long way from its humble start in the early 1960s — has helped to replace the awful memory of a terrible day a half-century ago. The Sixth Floor Museum, located in the former Texas School Book Depository, which once hid the sniper’s nest, has contributed immensely to the public’s understanding of the assassination.
Let’s hope the upcoming memorial ceremony in Dallas, while controversial because of lingering disagreement about the assassination’s facts, will be a dignified, fitting salute to a president who left us too young and with too much undone. And while never forgetting the manner of his death, we should strive on Nov. 22 and all days to appreciate the legacy of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s life. It is JFK’s words and deeds, and not the bullets of Dealey Plaza, that should echo through the ages in Dallas and around the world.
Â© 2013 Larry J. Sabato, author of The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy
Larry J. Sabato, author of The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy, is the founder and director of the renowned Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. He has appeared on dozens of national television and radio programs, including 60 Minutes, Today, Hardball, and Nightline. He has coanchored the BBC’s coverage of U.S. presidential returns and inaugurations, and has authored or edited more than a dozen books on American politics, including the highly praised A More Perfect Constitution: Why the Constitution Must Be Revised — Ideas to Inspire a New Generation. His other books include Feeding Frenzy, about press coverage of politicians; The Rise of Political Consultants; and Barack Obama and the New America. Sabato runs the acclaimed Crystal Ball website, which has the most comprehensive and accurate record of election analysis in the country. In 2001, the University of Virginia gave him its highest honor, the Thomas Jefferson Award. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.