Growing Up In the Shadows of the Kennedy Assassination
Writer’s Note: Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Some 19 months before that tragic day, I was born in Dallas. My family lived in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas, which is where Lee Harvey Oswald also resided, and was ultimately captured. In today’s column, I’d like to tell you a bit more about what life was like growing up in the shadows of the Kennedy Assassination, as I remember it.
I’m probably one of the few people alive who was near the two most shocking tragedies in modern American history.
On September 11, 2001, I lived on the ninth-floor of a high-rise apartment 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 is where John F. Kennedy’s body now rests.
On November 22, 1963, the Oak Cliff section of Dallas was my home, which was 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.
Of course, I don’t remember anything about that tragic day in Dallas. I was far too young to have any memories.
But everyone who from Dallas around that time came away with a deeper awareness of what the assassination meant. Sometime later, we all developed our impressions of what had happened. We carried around the scars long afterward. That terrible moment in our nation’s history gave Dallas an inferiority complex. It forced some 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 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 only a few miles away from the big banks, the tall buildings, and the 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 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 mostly grew up in and around Oak Cliff. So did many other famous people you may know. For example, Stevie Ray Vaughn, the great 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 parent’s connection to South Oak Cliff High School. The were students at the same school where 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 1960’s, it was a vast melting pot of all ethnic groups. No one seemed to have much money, but everyone got along just fine. We never had racial problems or the kinds of troubles that many often associate with the Old South. Although I moved away to Chicago and Albuquerque for a time (my father was an air-traffic controller), we returned back to Oak Cliff again during the 1970’s where I attended a half-White, half-Black school (T.W. Browne). It just wasn’t a big deal to us kids. 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. All memories fade.
When I was a kid, I watched a number of movies which 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 there, I also remember the tasty barbecue joint located right next door. It was called “Po’ Boys.” That local dive served the best sliced beef brisket in the city, topped off with a spicy sauce, washed down by an iced-cold mug of root beer. That was the best-tasting thing in the world when you’re 12-years-old.
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 was ever around knew him, or remembered him whatsoever. 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 stellar 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 such 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 knowing 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 50 years later, I think the evidence is pretty overwhelming that Lee Harvey Oswald acted entirely 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 it ever be.