Whitewash: JFK’s assassination in African-American eyes

Black Dealy Plaza

I’ve added a version of this poignant Dealey Plaza picture to the JFK Facts banner because I’d never really noticed its telling detail: a dozen African-Americans cheering the arrival of President Kennedy and First Lady Jackie in Dallas. It made me realize the obvious: black people –with engrained memories of extrajudicial lynchings–experienced JFK’s murder rather differently than most whites.

For black Americans, JFK was the first of 35 U.S. presidents to endorse full civic equality for their community and families. For many white Americans (like future Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush) Kennedy’s endorsement of the Civil Rights Act was an assault on state’s rights. Not since Lincoln had a true emancipationist lived in the White House.

For blacks, memories of assassination were fresh. In 1963 white Americans in 1963 had not recently experienced the assassination of a political leader. African-Americans had just seen Medgar Evers, field secretary of the Mississippi NAACP, get gunned down in June 1963. Needless to say, Evers was not killed by a “lone nut.”

black couple grassy knoll
Two detectives examine a bag lunch left by a young African-American couple who witnessed JFK’s murder. (Credit: Pictures of the Pain, by Richard Trask.)

When JFK was killed the reigning ethos of white supremacy suppressed the black experience.  For example, Kennedy’s murder was witnessed by a young African-American couple, whose testimony was lost to history.

According to Marilyn Sitzman and other people who saw them, the young woman was about 18 years old, her companion about 21. They were having lunch in the area known as the “grassy knoll,” when the shots rang out. They threw down their bag lunch and fled, never to be heard from again.

Who could blame them?

If you were a young black person in Dallas in 1963 and you thought (like Bill Newman and 21 police officers in the vicinity) that a gunshot had come from in front of the president’s motorcade, would you have come forward?

Would you have been eager to share your thoughts with the thoroughly racist Dallas Police Department. Or the thoroughly racist FBI? Or the thoroughly white national news media?

The answer is no. And so the experience of these witnesses was whitewashed from history. That blank page is part of the JFK story too.



6 thoughts on “Whitewash: JFK’s assassination in African-American eyes”

  1. The picture you post illustrates that many black Americans were NOT afraid to be seen in Dealey Plaza that day. So then why were these (the black couple on the knoll) black Americans afraid? Why would they be afraid to tell their story at any point in the subsequent years? Surely they would have confided in a friend or relative, right? Isn’t that what the anti-conspiracy crowd keeps telling us – somebody would have talked. Well, not if you saw or knew something that might get you killed. Or, just possibly, you never existed at all.

  2. I’ve long felt that using Dallas-based African American newspapers from 1963-64 would be a good research project for some grad student.
    These papers would have been more inclined to have interviewed fellow black Americans on what they saw that day, I think.
    Some of these may have been microfilmed by the Texas State Library.
    You can find newspapers published in Dallas in Ulrich’s Periodicals Directory™ (56th edition) 2018.

    Steve Thomas

  3. It is really unfortunate that these people were never given the opportunity to Share what their experience was that fateful day in Dallas. it is truly an indictment of the racist police force that existed in Dallas in the early sixties, all under the umbrella of “conservatism.”

  4. Thanks for posting this, Jeff. I think my eyes have looked at that photograph at least a hundred times and it never dawned on me. Talk about smashing people’s hope. 11.22.1963 was a horrible day for so many people, in so many different ways.

  5. In studying the JFK saga, one can see the apparent invisibility of African Americans who, in reality, were at the heart of the TSBD drama on November 22, 1963. What stuck out most of all was the consistent question asked of these witnesses: “Have you ever been arrested?” Of all the Black witnesses, only Charles Givens had a Police Intelligence Services file for marijuana possession – a misdemeanor charge at best – but this was used to make Givens change his testimony. Givens became the sole [impeachable] witness to “see” Oswald on the 6th floor, shortly before the JFK assassination, based on his WC testimony. Given’s WC testimony contradicted his DPD affidavit of 11-22-63, where he stated he last saw Oswald on the 5th floor, as the floor laying crew raced down on the elevators to the first floor. Given’s stated this race on the elevators took place about noon. James Jarman, Jr. and Harold Norman corroborated Oswald’s claim that he saw them as they walked past the “Domino” Lunch Room, on the first floor, about 12:20 pm, or 12:25 pm (times given were by James “Junior” Jarman and Harold Norman).

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