Dallas’ Darkest Cloud: Growing Up in the Shadows of the Kennedy Assassination
Writer’s Note: Today marks the 56th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Some 19 months before that tragic day, I was born in Dallas. My family lived in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas, where Lee Harvey Oswald also resided and was ultimately captured. Today’s column reveals what life was like growing up in the shadows of the Kennedy Assassination. A similar version of this article first appeared at this site in 2013.
I’m one of the few people alive who lived near the two most shocking tragedies in modern American history. I say this with no sense of pride, but do wish to bear witness.
On September 11, 2001, I lived on the ninth floor of a high-rise condo building in Arlington, VA, across Interstate 395, directly overlooking the Pentagon, which became engulfed in flames that morning after being hit by a jet airliner in the worst terrorist attack ever on American soil.
Ironically, Arlington, VA is where John F. Kennedy’s body now rests.
On November 22, 1963, the Oak Cliff section of Dallas was my home, only a few miles from where President Kennedy was assassinated and an even shorter distance from where Lee Harvey Oswald was later caught by Dallas police at the Texas Theater on Jefferson.
I don’t remember anything about that tragic day in Dallas. I was too young to have any memories.
But everyone from Dallas around that time developed a deeper sense of awareness than most of what the assassination meant. Sometime later, we came to our own opinions about what had happened. We carried around scars, lingering long afterward. That terrible moment in our nation’s history even gave Dallas an inferiority complex. It forced some of us to try and go out and prove to the world that we weren’t like the assassin at all (who was actually from New Orleans and even lived in New York City for a short time). We weren’t “the city of hate,” as many suggested.
The Oak Cliff section of Dallas lies just to the south of downtown, on the opposite side the Trinity River. It’s considered the city’s stepchild.
Oak Cliff only a few miles away from the big banks, tall buildings, and giant office towers that eventually became Dallas’ trademark. It’s only a short ride from far wealthier sections of the city — including Highland Park, University Park, and North Dallas. But it might as well have been light-years from the rest of Dallas society — the privileged upper class who glanced across the Trinity River and the giant flood plain and looked at Oak Cliff as “the other side of the tracks.”
My mother and father divorced early in my life. They mostly grew up in and around Oak Cliff. So did many other famous people you may know. For example, Stevie Ray Vaughn, the iconic blues guitarist, was from Oak Cliff. Long before then, the notorious bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde hung out around the far western fringes of Jefferson Avenue.
For me, perhaps the most shocking common ground, however, is my parents’ connection to South Oak Cliff High School. They were students at the same school where (now retired) NBA star Dennis Rodman later went and played high school basketball. Pretty amazing to think my mother and father sat in the same classrooms as Dennis Rodman.
Today, Oak Cliff is just about all Black and Latino. But back during the early 1960s, it was a vast melting pot of all ethnic groups. Sort of a smaller Brooklyn. No one seemed to have much money, but everyone got along fine. We never had racial problems or the kinds of troubles associated with the Old South. Although I moved away to Chicago and Albuquerque for a time (my father worked an air-traffic controller), we returned back to Oak Cliff again during the 1970s where I attended a half-White, half-Black school (T.W. Browne). Race just wasn’t a big deal to us kids. We even had lots of interracial dating. Maybe the grown-ups thought differently about race than we did.
I don’t remember ever seeing the actual house where Lee Harvey Oswald lived, nor do I know the exact spot where he senselessly gunned down a Dallas police officer named J.D. Tippet. Oh, I probably rode my bike down those streets and later drove my car across the pavement where Oswald walked many times over the years. But the passage of time is a giant eraser. It tends to wipe out the things we don’t see. Most memories fade slowly.
When I was a kid, I watched a number of movies that played at the Texas Theater. One seat in the center of the auditorium was different than the others. It was painted black. That was the infamous seat where Lee Harvey Oswald was sitting when he was captured by police and tried to resist arrest.
Growing up, I also remember the tasty barbecue joint located next door. It was called “Po’ Boys.” That local dive served the tastiest sliced beef-brisket in the city, topped off with a spicy sauce, washed down by an ice-cold mug of root beer. That was the best-tasting thing in the world when you’re 12-years-old, or 57-years-old.
Years later, I worked as a bartender at a restaurant downtown. A husband-wife team waited tables where I worked and somehow managed to save enough money to lease the storefront where the old Po’ Boys had been and open up their own Mexican restaurant. Their last name was — and I swear I’m not making this up — “Kennedy.” Oh, the irony.
Whether it was watching movies or eating barbecue, no one ever brought up the name Lee Harvey Oswald, nor did we give much thought to the things that happened that awful day back in 1963. No one that I around knew him, nor remembered him. It was like he never existed.
Some people think sports receives far too much attention in our society. Perhaps they’re right.
But unless you’re around my age, or perhaps a little older, you will never be able to understand the significance of what the Dallas Cowboys football team meant to our city, and it’s people. To most out there reading this who are from other cities and the fans of other teams, you have to try and imagine the terrible black eye Dallas suffered because of the Kennedy Assassination.
The worldwide anger directed at the city was (and is) completely unwarranted. After all, the actual crowds that welcomed the President on that November day were friendly, even wildly enthusiastic. Moreover, Kennedy wasn’t killed by a local right-winger. He was murdered by an avowed Marxist who lived most of his life elsewhere. The assassin also had no long-term links to Dallas, other than living in the city and its suburbs on two separate occasions. At the time he killed Kennedy, Oswald had been living in Oak Cliff for about seven weeks’ time.
Yet, Dallas and its citizens were largely blamed as a whole for the crime of the century.
What happened in the aftermath of the Kennedy Assassination certainly didn’t help the city’s image in the larger court of public opinion. Although the Dallas Police Department did a remarkable job at capturing Oswald quickly and linking the assassin directly to the crime with evidence that was overwhelming (within just hours), his shocking murder on national television only a few days later in the basement of the city jail by Jack Ruby, a strip club owner with ties to organized crime, made the world think of Dallas as an outpost in the wild west.
Fortunately, without intention, the NFL’s Cowboys came to deflect that image over the years. They became good, very good in fact, at just the right time. In 1965, the Cowboys began a record-setting string of consecutive playoff appearances. To outsiders, they became a new symbol of a more modern city and a source of pride for everyone. Much later, they even became known as “America’s Team.” I think the adoration many people have for the Cowboys stems from people needing some sense of relief from the pain of those darkest days in the city’s history. Back then, they were the shining star that allowed the city to heal from what happened.
Growing up around where the Kennedy Assassination took place gives me a more sentimental attachment to the events of that day and the people who were witnesses of history. But it doesn’t provide me with any special advantages as to suspecting who was really responsible.
After the Warren Commission Report was released, a cottage industry of conspiracies sprung up. Some of the authors and investigators who penned various theories were well-intended, and even thought-provoking. Others were total quacks. In some cases, important questions were brought to light for the first time that needed to be asked, specifically about facts that weren’t covered in the Warren Commission Report. Of course, the links between Oswald and Ruby to Pandora’s Box of possibilities — ranging from organized crime to the Central Intelligence Agency, to Fidel Castro, to the Russians — made for some entertaining speculation.
Now 55 years later, I think the evidence is overwhelming that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone — as did Jack Ruby when he shot his target in a moment of passion. While plenty of other theories were worthy of consideration at one time, we’ve now reached the point when no additional information, nor final conclusive answers, are likely to be forthcoming. Perhaps the real story of what happened in Dallas that day was just as it was initially reported. That’s not the answer many people want to hear. But the truth isn’t always the most interesting of possibilities.
That’s probably the saddest tragedy of all, that the leader of a nation could be gunned down and history could be forever changed — not by the hand of a grand conspiracy — but rather from a simple inexplicable act from a loner.
The streets in Dealey Plaza and around Oak Cliff where the assassination and its aftermath took place remain virtually identical today, just as they were 50 years ago. But for all those who were around during that time and who remember, nothing is quite the same as it was, nor will things ever be the same again.