Kennedy Assassination Craziness

Five decades later, President John F. Kennedy’s death still has power in Dallas — even if, for some, it’s the power to provoke.
In the year before the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination in Dealey Plaza, a blue ribbon committee has struggled with how to commemorate the city’s darkest day with both candor and dignity.
But for a local skating league, the Assassination City Roller Derby, dignity is beside the point.
The derby says its purpose is “to combine the spectacle of roller derby with the underbelly of Dallas’ seedy and mysterious past.” In a news release, it describes one of the league’s four home teams, the “Lone Star Assassins,” this way:
“They never act alone. Skate to thrill, shoot to kill! Get ready to take a hit, ‘cause they’ve got you in their sights.”
Rhian Valentine, 28, the league’s spokeswoman, said no disrespect is intended.
“I can understand that some people may be offended,” Valentine said. “But that’s not what we’re all about. The name is about taking something negative and being tongue-in-cheek and being light about a gritty situation.”
For Sonny Williams, there is no being light about the JFK assassination, not even after all these years.
On Nov. 22, 1963, Williams was managing a grocery store in East Dallas when word swept through the aisles that the president had just been shot in Dealey Plaza. He remembers the eerie quiet that followed.
“Fridays were normally our busiest day of the week, but suddenly, the store was empty. People just got in their cars and left,” he said.
The fact that the assassination happened in Dallas made the tragedy almost literally unspeakable for months afterward, he recalled.
“It was not business as usual for quite a while,” he said. “People would come into the store; they were very quiet, very serious, you didn’t joke about anything.”
He understands that for many people, especially those too young to remember, the JFK assassination has become a distant historical event. But still.
“You couldn’t have named a team something like that back then,” he said of the roller derby league. “People would have beaten you to death.”
The effects of time
As any event recedes into history, its emotional impact will always ease, said Timothy Naftali, a presidential scholar with the New America Foundation.
“As time passes, the idea of approaching something like this with irony and edginess becomes less sacrilegious,” he said. “History belongs to everybody. I don’t think we should be prudish.”
Attitudes most naturally fall along generational lines, but not as cleanly as you might think, he said.
“People who are born in a city will internalize it, even if they were born years afterwards,” he said. “Their parents remember it, and it is so much part of Dallas history, it becomes part of their cultural history.”
Both the initial impact of the JFK assassination, and its transformation into a cultural curiosity, may be due to the same phenomenon — the emergence of electronic media.
In 1963, the medium was television. Kennedy was the first president who was comfortable in front of cameras, and he had a witty, informal style that engaged ordinary viewers. People felt they knew him personally, said Jeffrey Engel, director of the SMU Center for Presidential History.
When JFK was killed, it was as if the violence had happened to someone you knew, Engel said.
Moreover, television was there to bring that tragedy into people’s homes.
“For the first time, people everywhere could see what Dealey Plaza looked like and people could see Jack Ruby,” he said. “You could sit by the TV and be gripped in a communal way.
“That was new. If you had interviewed 1,000 people at the time that Lincoln got shot, maybe 10 of them could describe what Ford’s Theater looked like.”
In the following years, as events such as the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal eroded faith in government, conspiracy theories about Kennedy’s death abounded. What had been a tragedy that bound the country together became a source for a controversy that divided it.
That controversy was given currency by popular culture. Most notably, by JFK, the 1991 Oliver Stone movie.
In a way, irreverence toward the event is a tribute to its continuing power, said Edward Linenthal, a history professor at Indiana University.
Linenthal was in high school at the time of the assassination. He still feels uncomfortable at the thought of making light of that event, even five decades later.
But if the JFK assassination had simply been forgotten, it would not continue to surface in popular culture.
Linenthal cited the 2010 music video in which Dallas’ Erykah Badu stripped off her clothes in Dealey Plaza and fell to the ground as if she had been shot.
“Maybe it requires an emotional detachment to play with this place which is still very powerful, feeling that you can get a rise out of people,” Linenthal said. “But if you took off your clothes and fell down in a Kroger’s parking lot, who would care?”
‘Walking up to the line’
The name of a bar a little more than a mile from Dealey Plaza, Lee Harvey’s, evokes the president’s murderer, Lee Harvey Oswald. It hasn’t hurt its popularity. Playboy magazine rated it one of the 10 best dive bars in the country.
“We get people who are offended; they say, ‘How can you name a bar after a person like that?’” said bartender Emily Reed, as regulars came in on a recent Friday afternoon. “Some people think it’s kitschy, and some people just think it’s cool.”


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