Assassination and Commemoration by Stephen Fagin (University of Oklahoma Press, $29.95)
By Stuart Nulman
Back in 1972, when there was an ensuing debate in Dallas whether the Texas School Book Depository should be preserved as a memorial to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy nine years earlier, it was met with a great deal of opposition.
That opposition was exemplified by Dallas city councilman Fred M. Zeder, who stated that “a crumbling, condemned, ugly, (seven)-storey memorial to what? To the fanatic foul deed of a sick little man? … Surely, this building can never be a memorial to John Kennedy, who never set foot in it, who never knew it existed.”
In fact, because the city of Dallas was going through a great deal of pain and shame because of its association with the Kennedy assassination, many officials wanted to have the Texas School Book Depository building demolished, so that it could erase this symbol of such a bitter legacy. However, it took the heroic efforts of a group of people led by Conover Hunt and Lindalyn Adams to not only preserve the building where those fatal three shots allegedly were fired from, but transform it into a museum that would also serve as a place of commemoration and reflection.
This 25-year battle is well chronicled in the book Assassination and Commemoration by Stephen Fagin, who serves as the Sixth Floor at Dealey Plaza’s Associate Curator and Oral Historian.
The book details the step-by-step process of how the building, which was built in 1901, transformed itself from a scene of tragedy to a museum that receives about 460,000 visitors a year, and about 85% of those visitors are from outside the state of Texas. It details the struggles the citizens of Dallas had of living in a city where a president died, to the changing hands of ownership the building had within the 10 years following the assassination, to the uphill battle of convincing city officials and prominent citizens to preserve the building and creating a museum on its sixth floor, to deciding what kind of museum it should be, and whether the emphasis should be placed more on the assassination, the assassin or the legacy of John F. Kennedy.
The last half of the book is dedicated to the creation of the museum and its permanent sixth floor exhibition, and the many conflicting viewpoints to how such a tragic event should be commemorated. The committee went through a series of conflicts and dilemmas until a final plan was approved and built upon towards its official opening on Presidents Day in 1989. Two that stood out in the book are whether its increased focus on JFK’s life and presidency would have interfered with the mission of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, and one of the more contentious issues was whether or not to preserve the book depository’s second floor lunchroom (where Oswald was first seen by police immediately following the assassination) and include a life-size mannequin of Oswald on the same spot where he was first seen; eventually, after a great deal of controversy and discussion, that entire idea was quashed.
Assassination and Commemoration gives the reader a fascinating insight into how a specialized museum is created. And the story behind the creation of the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza is so much more than just the evolution of a tourist attraction. It tells about a major American city’s healing process from its painful legacy as a city where the death of a president took place, and how the steps towards giving the Texas School Book Depository building a proper preservation from a place of tragedy and shame, to a place of commemoration, reflection and historical significance, which shares such similar significance as the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor and Ground Zero in New York City.
And after visiting the museum while I was in Dallas two months ago, I can understand why this effort at historical preservation was so important, and so worth it.
Stuart Nulman’s “Book Banter” segment is a twice-a-month feature on “The Stuph File Program” with Peter Anthony Holder, which now has almost 150,000 listeners per week. You can either listen or download it at www.peteranthonyholder.com, Stitcher.com or subscribe to it on iTunes. Plus you can find it at www.CyberStationUSA.com, www.KDXradio.com, True Talk Radio, streaming on www.PCJMedia.com, and over the air at World FM 88.2fm in New Zealand, Media Corp in Singapore and WSTJ, St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Stuart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.