A half-century ago, two young black people in Dallas found themselves eyewitnesses to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy — yet their voices have never been heard. Indeed, a half century later, even their names are unknown.
This young man and woman were sitting on the spot famously dubbed “the grassy knoll” on November 22, 1963. They had a front row seat for a key moment in 20th century U.S. history: the murder of a popular liberal president.
They were two young African-Americans, siblings or friends. Perhaps they admired President Kennedy. While JFK was reviled by many whites in Dallas for his liberal views, he was popular among blacks. If they came to see JFK and First Lady Jackie in person, they witnessed a nightmare.
“There was a colored couple. I figure they were between 18 and 21, a boy and a girl, sitting on a bench, just almost, oh, parallel with me, on my right side, close to the fence, ” recalled Marilyn Sitzman, a bystander who also witnessed JFK’s assassination.
Sitzman, a secretary, had accompanied her boss, dressmaker Abraham Zapruder, to Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas to watch President Kennedy’s mid-day motorcade. They found a spot on a marble wall atop a grassy embankment overlooking the president’s route. Sitzman was standing behind Zapruder who held his Super 8 millimeter movie camera. Zapruder’s famous movie would capture the killing of the president.
In a 1966 interview, Sitzman told author Josiah Thompson that she had first noticed the black couple 10 or 15 minutes before JFK’s arrival.
“Everybody was milling around down there, trying to find a place to stand and everything,” she said, “and I know when we went over to get up on the marble thing, they were already sitting there.”
“They were eating their lunch, ’cause they had little lunch sacks, and they were drinking Coke,” Sitzman recounted.
As the motorcade passed by, President Kennedy, seated next to First Lady Jackie, was waving to the friendly crowd when gunshots rang out. Kennedy was struck by a bullet in the back and then then flung violently backward by a bullet that struck his head above his right ear blasting his skull open in an explosion of blood, brains, and bone, killing him almost instantly.
In the ensuing chaos Sitzman saw the black couple again.
“The main reason I remember ‘em is, after the last shot I recall hearing and the [president's] car went down under the triple underpass there, I heard a crash of glass, and I looked over there, and the kids had thrown down their Coke bottles, just threw them down and just started running towards the back, and … everybody else was running that way.”
The young black man and woman rushed toward a five-foot-high wooden stockade fence behind them. The grassy embankment in front of this fence was the area that would become known as “the grassy knoll.” If there was a gunman there, this couple was closer to him than anybody else. No such gunman has ever been identified.
To some JFK commentators, “grassy knoll” is sometime used as a synonym for crazy conspiracy theorizing. (“Oh don’t go all grassy knoll on me.”) But it was not a conspiracy theorist who came up with the idea that Kennedy had been killed by a gunshot fired from in front of his motorcade. It was a newspaper reporter.
The term “grassy knoll” was coined by Merriman Smith of United Press International who was riding in a car behind JFK’s limousine when the shots rang out. Twenty five minutes later, Smith filed a story on JFK’s assassination in which he reported this:
“Some of the Secret Service agents thought the gunfire was from an automatic weapon fired to the right rear of the president’s car, probably from a grassy knoll [emphasis added] to which police rushed.”
The first people to say there was shot from the grassy knoll were Secret Service and police officers on the scene. At least 34 witnesses would come forward to say they thought a gunshot had been fired from the grassy knoll area.
But there was no young black man or woman among these witnesses.
There is a photograph that corroborates the details of Marilyn Sitzman’s story about the young African-American couple. The photo, taken within a few minutes of JFK’s assassination, shows the park bench described by Sitzman, and two Dallas police detectives looking at the remains of a bag lunch. Another photograph taken at the time shows a pool of liquid on the ground, the spilled soda.
The black man and woman whom Sitzman saw were never identified or interviewed by any law enforcement officer or investigator. No journalist, researcher or author ever found them. In the vast literature of JFK’s assassination, they barely exist. They were present at the scene of an epic crime — and they vanished.
They might still be alive and living in Dallas. If Sitzman was right about their ages, they would be between 68 and 71 years old now (The average life expectancy of African-Americans is 70.2 years.)
Why didn’t they come forward?
Don Roberdeau, a Vietnam War veteran and JFK researcher who has mapped the exact location of many witnesses to JFK’s assassination, told me in an email:
“For me, one of the black couple simply threw down his/her pop bottle after the shock of seeing President KENNEDY bloodily executed only 75 feet away. Someone, maybe the other black person, set his/her pop bottle atop the retaining wall, they left their hamburgers bag behind, and they both just went off into the [Texas School Book Depository] parking lot, choosing never to come forward, nor have they been identified publicly — for whatever reasons. My guess is that they both sensed the nearby fired shot and one or both of the black couple saw the … picket fence assassin who was only forty feet southwest of the sitting bench.”
If the black couple is still alive, their testimony would be important contribution to commemoration of the 50th anniversary JFK’s assassination. If the fatal shot came from a gunman behind the fence, they were closer to him than almost any other witnesses. Conversely, if there was no gunman in that area, they would have been among the first to see that.
One can well appreciate why these two people did not come forward to tell their story. In 1963, Dallas was a Jim Crow city, where racial segregation was legal and respectable, and African-Americans were routinely treated as second-class citizens, especially by law enforcement officers.
The official story of JFK’s assassination, promoted almost immediately by the Dallas Police Department, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, and Lyndon Johnson’s White House, was that the president had been shot from an office building behind Kennedy’s limousine, by a pro-Castro communist named Lee Harvey Oswald, who had no co-conspirators and no discernible motive.
The FBI studiously avoided interviewing white people in the vicinity (like Bill Newman, the man seen lying down in the top photo above). Newman said he thought the fatal shot came from the front. The Warren Commission never took Newman’s testimony. Reporters of the New York Times, the Washington Post and other national newspapers never sought to interview the witnesses who said a shot had come from the front.
Under the circumstances, it would have been foolish for any young black person to come forward to tell a story that few white people in positions of power wanted to hear. After Oswald, who denied shooting JFK, was murdered in police custody, it would have been almost suicidal.
The black couple on the grassy knoll met a familiar fate of African-Americans in that time. They were silenced: by fear, by the hostility of white law enforcement officers, and by the indifference of respectable reporters. Even JFK researchers, who did seek out witnesses who dissented from the official story, never found them. They were omitted from the writing of American history.
But now, 50 years later in 2013, when we have African-American president, it is time that the story of the couple on the knoll was told, if possible.
If you know any black people in Dallas, or have ever heard anything about an African-American couple in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963, please send them this article.
Anybody with relevant information, please email JFK Facts (JFKfacts.org). Confidentiality is assured.