From reverence to kitsch, JFK assassination references in Dallas run gamut

Jeffrey Engle, director of the Center for Presidential History at SMU, talks about the tone of JFK assassination references in Dallas, and how it has changed over time.

By David Flick

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....

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.”