The city of fathers of Dallas plan to plant a memorial plaque to President John F. Kennedy near the spot where he was shot dead 50 years ago, reports the Dallas Morning News.
This foolhardly but revealing proposal captures Dallas civic culture at is most clueless. Whatever its intentions, the idea of an “uplifting” plaque in the place where John F. Kennedy — a man, a husband, a father, a veteran of war, a visionary liberal, and a leader — died in a hail of bullets is not only in supremely bad taste. It also may also violate National Park Service regulations requiring that the area be preserved as it appeared 50 years ago.
Which is not to say the plaque won’t sprout on or about November 22, 2013. This is Texas, land of the backroom deal, and the fix for the happy JFK plaque seems to be in.
What kind of plaque?
“Plans call for his words to be written in 2-inch-high letters on a plaque 3½ feet wide by 15 feet long that will be placed in the ground on the grassy knoll on the north side of the plaza,” the Morning News reported.
The horizontal plaque will contain a quote from a speech that JFK was going to give had he not been murdered on his way to a luncheon speaking engagement. I’ll return to the favored quote chosen in a moment. Suffice it to say that the idea for the plaque has been approved “informally” by the Texas Historic Commission which has jurisdiction over the site, according to a commission official.
“The words themselves were so uplifting,” enthused Deedie Rose, a 50th anniversary committee member tasked with developing the memorial. “We thought it was right to place them in a place that had brought so much grieving,”
The words themselves are so uplifting. Are Americans really looking for uplifting words when they visit the site of JFK’s assassination?
Most people I know go to Dealey Plaza in search of a better understanding of a historic crime that the U.S. government has never explained in a way that is persuasive to a majority of sane, rational Americans. (You can review the latest poll data here.)
Blogger Joe Backes at the Justice for Kennedy blog is calling for action to stop the plaque. He says says the location of the plaque will distract people from thinking about the possiblity Kennedy was killed by a shot from the front of his motorcade — from the proverbial grassy knoll.
I doubt it. If it is built, the location of the massive plaque in the middle of the crime will only call attention to debate about the causes of JFK’s death.
(Was there a shot from the grassy knoll? A lot of people in the vicinity thought so. Professor John McAdams, one of the more credible anti-conspiratorial writers on the Web, acknowledges that no less than 34 witnesses heard a shot from the knoll. And that’s his lowest estimate. Another credible survey found 52 witnesses to a grassy knoll shot.)
In any case, the issue is not conspiracy but legality. The DMN says the Texas Historic Commission has final say over the plaque, and that it must act in accordance with federal guidelines:
“The state commission acts on behalf of the National Park Service, which in 1993 designated Dealey Plaza a National Historic District. That designation carries strict rules to protect the immediate environment of the plaza, ensuring that it will look as it did 50 years ago.”
I’ve studied a lot of pictures of Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963, and I’ve never seen a 3 by 15 foot plaque quoting JFK in any of them.
What you will see in photos of the “immediate environment” where JFK was killed are a number of bystanders lying on the ground. Consider the photo of the grassy knoll accompanying this article. It was taken less than 30 second after JFK was shot. The people seen lying on the ground said they ducked because they felt like they were caught in a crossfire. That’s the general area where the planned plaque will stand.
The idea is no doubt “uplifting” to some because it promises to erase — or at least supplant —the disturbing imagery of JFK’s assassination something with new and positive. And what could be more American than to honor the spirit of JFK?
The idea of the plaque will be disturbing to many more because it would reshape the landscape of a world-historic crime scene with an “uplifing” monument to the power of avoidance.
And how will the proposed plaque uplift visitors? Here’s the final the final paragraph of the speech President John F. Kennedy was to deliver in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. These are the words that Dallas wants the world to read:
“We in this country, in this generation, are — by destiny rather than choice— the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility — that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint — and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of ‘peace on earth, good will toward men.’ That must always be our goal — and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: ‘except the Lordkeep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.’”
JFK’s message on November 22, 1963 was one of peace, calling for Americans to use wisdom and restraint in the use of power. But to invoke the image of a watchman at the scene of a murder is more than unfortunate. It is false to the place and the moment. Where the watchmen of the CIA, the FBI, the Secret Service and the Dallas Police Department failed to protect the president, let us be uplifted by the words JFK was too dead to speak.
Not for the first time, the city of Dallas has failed to understand the life and legacy of John F. Kennedy.