DALLAS — Loose gatherings of the curious and conspiracy-minded at Dallas’ Dealey Plaza have marked past anniversaries of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, featuring everything from makeshift memorials to marching drummers to discussions about who else might have been in on the killing.
But in the place where the president’s motorcade passed through and shots rang out on Nov. 22, 1963, a solemn ceremony on the 50th anniversary of his death designed to avoid such distractions will include brief remarks by the mayor and the tolling of church bells.
It’s an approach that will be mirrored Friday in Boston, where the JFK Library and Museum will open a small exhibit of never-before-displayed items from Kennedy’s state funeral and host a musical tribute that will be closed to the public, and in Washington, where President Barack Obama will meet privately at the White House with leaders and volunteers from the Kennedy-established Peace Corps program.
“It’s 50 years later and it’s also a moment to look forward to the future,” said Thomas Putnam, executive director of the library, which usually doesn’t observe the anniversary. “We want our tone to be respectful and we want it to have a certain reverence, but we also want it to be hopeful and end on this notion of what JFK stood for.”
The committee convened by current Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings to plan the city’s event wanted to focus “in a positive way more on the legacy of President Kennedy,” said Ron Kirk, a former mayor and member of the panel.
About 5,000 tickets were issued for the free ceremony in Dealey Plaza, which is flanked by the Texas School Book Depository building where sniper Lee Harvey Oswald perched on the sixth floor in 1963.
Friday’s event will include readings from the president’s speeches by author David McCullough. In a nod to Kennedy’s military service, the U.S. Naval Academy Men’s Glee Club will perform and there will be an Air Force flyover. A moment of silence will be held at 12:30 p.m., when the president was shot.
There was no shortage of events in Dallas this year marking the anniversary, including panels with journalists and others who witnessed the events of the day, special concerts and museum exhibits.
As press aide for Texas Gov. John Connally, Julian Read was in a media bus several vehicles behind the presidential limousine. After the gunshots, he watched as the vehicle carrying the president and wounded governor sped away. Read released a book this year recounting his experience and has attended several of the events, which he called cathartic.
“Even though there are all those melancholy thoughts, the way it’s shaping up ... gives me more of a comfort than any time since 1963,” said Read, who will return to Dealey Plaza on Friday.
John Judge, executive director of the Coalition on Political Assassinations, first came to Dealey Plaza to mark the fifth anniversary of JFK’s death in 1968.
Judge’s group, which believes Kennedy’s death was part of a conspiracy, usually gathers on the plaza’s “grassy knoll” for a moment of silence at 12:30 p.m. Since it’ll be blocked off this year, Judge says he’s reached a “livable” agreement with the city in which they’ll gather a few blocks away and move to the plaza after the official ceremony ends.
The group has made T-shirts for the occasion with the slogan, “50 years in denial is enough” and an image like that of Kennedy on the half-dollar coin, except with a bullet hole in his head and blood.
“It was meant to be shocking because we think that not solving his murder was shocking,” Judge said. He added about 10 members of his group will attend the official ceremony.
Other events being held Friday in Dallas include a ceremony at Parkland Memorial Hospital, where Kennedy was declared dead, to lower the U.S. flag to half-staff. In Fort Worth, the city’s Chamber of Commerce will host a breakfast at the hotel where Kennedy gave his last speech and spent the last night of his life.
In Boston, the private musical tribute will feature Paul Winter, who performed at the White House with his jazz sextet during Kennedy’s presidency, along with a U.S. Navy choir and James Taylor. Other notable guests at the event, which will be streamed on the library’s website, include Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who is scheduled to read quotes from Kennedy’s speeches.