Dallas' Sixth Floor Museum gives bigger picture of JFK assassination

DALLAS — It's a site, and sight, both eerie and fascinating.

Peering through thick glass, I see a collection of scuffed boxes up against a corner window, the sniper's nest from which Lee Harvey Oswald is said to have shot President John F. Kennedy. The boxes, in the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, are duplicates of the originals, stacked precisely as they appear in crime scene photographs from Nov. 22, 1963.

Nearby, people look out an adjacent window onto Dealey Plaza, where two large, white Xs in the roadway mark where Kennedy was shot. Those Xs, like many other landmarks in this city, are attractions; tourists wait for a break in the traffic, then dash into the street, stand on one and quickly pose for a souvenir photo.

The Xs, like those boxes, will likely be scuffed by visitors here to mark Nov. 22, the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination.

This museum is unlike any other in the United States, and maybe the world. At Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C, where President Lincoln was shot in 1865, plays and musicals are still performed. In New Delhi, a modest shrine in the garden marks where Mahatma Gandhi was killed outside his home in 1948.

The sixth floor of the former Texas School Book Depository building takes visitors back to one of the darkest days of the 20th century. Kennedy's death has become a unifying point of reference for Americans; most people of a certain age can tell you immediately where they were when they heard the news.

I was 7 years old, a second-grader in Hayward, Calif., when the older sister of a friend told me the news. I sat in disbelief. The events that weekend became the catalyst for my career in journalism and communications, and later motivated me to compile the recently published book "November 22, 1963: Reflections on the Life, Assassination, and Legacy of John F. Kennedy."

Fifty years later, I can still hear the dirges and muffled drumbeats of the funeral procession from the White House to the Capitol that Sunday afternoon. Less than an hour earlier, I had watched on live television as Jack Ruby shot accused assassin Oswald.

Those iconic images, captured on film and in photographs on display in the Sixth Floor Museum, recall the emotions that gripped America.

Exiting the elevator, I stepped onto the wooden planks of the former warehouse. The first exhibits take visitors back to the early 1960s with album covers and books such as "The Feminine Mystique," by Betty Friedan, as well as JFK campaign posters.

The video of the Kennedy-Richard Nixon debates makes it clear why Kennedy was dubbed the nation's "first television president." His confidence and charm far overshadow the gruff, serious demeanor of then-Vice President Nixon. As expected, there are images of Kennedy's inaugural speech and his declaration that "the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans," and the clarion call to "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country" that inspired countless young people to careers in public service.

Highlights of his presidency, such as the Bay of Pigs fiasco in April 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, demonstrate distinctions in presidential decision-making and show how Kennedy, the youngest president ever elected, grew into the job as the leader of the free world.

These engaging images led me to the next series of exhibits and the stark reminder of why I was here.

The smallest details contribute to the bigger picture. I lingered over a photocopy of Oswald's application to work at the book depository building. Nearby, there is an image of Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry holding a news conference urging the public's cooperation during the president's visit. Less than a month earlier, the city had hosted Adlai Stevenson, America's ambassador to the United Nations, who was spat upon and accosted by Kennedy opponents.

Some of those opponents, who believed Kennedy and his administration were "soft on communism," bought a full-page advertisement in the Nov. 22 Dallas Morning News. I stopped and skimmed a framed copy of the ad headlined "WELCOME MR. KENNEDY TO DALLAS," noting that the city "rejected your philosophy and policies in 1960 and will do so again in 1964 — even more emphatically than before." Ted Dealey, the newspaper's publisher and son of the man for whom Dealey Plaza is named, was a staunch Kennedy opponent and approved the ad.

Kennedy saw the ad that morning in his hotel suite in Fort Worth. He was disgusted, remarking to his wife, Jacqueline, "Oh, you know, we're heading into nut country today."

Images in the next several panels belie the photos of tragedy that museum visitors know are ahead. We see the president and the first lady, who is wearing the pink suit and matching pillbox hat, being greeted at Dallas' Love Field. They shake hands with well-wishers along a fence, then enter the Lincoln limousine with Texas Gov. John Connally and his wife, Nellie. Along the 9 1/2-mile route to the Dallas Trade Mart for the president's luncheon speech, onlookers wave flags and shout to the Kennedys. At one point, Kennedy tells the driver, Secret Service agent William Greer, to stop so he can greet a group of Catholic nuns.

The mood is celebratory.

"The people of Dallas had turned out in overwhelming numbers and had given the president a vibrant and warm welcome," Curry would write in his memoir six years later. "For a brief moment, I almost started to relax."

The next several panels show the limousine coming under gunfire in Dealey Plaza. Still photos from the film taken by clothing manufacturer Abraham Zapruder chronicle the six seconds that some believe changed history: