Eyes of the world back on Dallas as US mourns slain leader 50 years on
Published 23/11/2013 | 02:00
This time it was the peeling of bells rather than the crack of bullets that rang across Dealey Plaza in Dallas.
At 12.30pm yesterday, an invited crowd gathered to honour the life and legacy of President John F Kennedy, 50 years to the minute after an assassin cut him down in his prime.
On that November afternoon in 1963, the cheers of onlookers turned to silence and screams as the presidential limousine roared off on a futile dash to a nearby hospital, the mortally-wounded president slumped in the lap of his wife Jacqueline.
Some 5,000 people stood in the cold and rain in Dealey Plaza yesterday, their numbers only restricted by space and security.
Around the nation, Americans also stopped and mourned, their eyes once again on the Texas city.
Many in the crowd glanced up towards the far window on the sixth floor of the red-brick building that stands at the north-east corner of the plaza.
It was from there, unless some of the wilder conspiracy theories are correct, that Lee Harvey Oswald, a disgruntled former Marine and communist sympathiser, fired the fatal shots.
"A new era dawned and another waned a half-century ago when hope and hatred collided right here in Dallas," said Mike Rawlings, the Dallas mayor.
"Our collective hearts were broken."
Mr Kennedy was silenced that day. But the words of a president renowned for the power and inspiration of his oratory have lived on since then and it was his message of hope and promise that was at the heart of yesterday's tribute.
Mr Rawlings read the final lines of the speech that Mr Kennedy had been due to deliver that lunchtime in which the president would have noted that "by destiny rather than choice" Americans are the "watchmen on the walls of world freedom".
The words that he never had the chance to deliver in 1963 are inscribed on a new memorial that was unveiled in the plaza during yesterday's ceremony.
The mayor then called for a moment's silence, the quiet giving way to a rendition of 'America the Beautiful', sung by the US Naval Academy choir, in honour of Mr Kennedy's time with that service during the World War II.
And then the power of Mr Kennedy's language resounded again, as David McCullough, a presidential historian, praised him for his eloquence and read excerpts from his most famous speeches.
"He was ambitious to make it a better world and so were we," said Mr McCullough. "He was an optimist, and he said so, but there was no side stepping reality in what he said.
"He spoke to the point and with confidence. He knew words matter. His words changed lives. His words changed history."
He read extensively from Mr Kennedy's "New Frontier" speech in which the young politician spelled out his challenge to Americans when he won the Democratic presidential nomination.
"The New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises – it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them. It appeals to their pride, not to their pocketbook – it holds out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security."
For the crowd, this was the chance to imagine what might have been.
"I look up at that window and just think, 'What if?' – what if history could be tweaked, if there was just some small change in the course of events that day?" said Carol Chazdon, a business consultant who was 12 when her teacher tearfully told her class that the president had been shot.
"I am here in memory of the hope, joy and pride he brought us all as Americans."
The plaza itself is remarkably little changed in appearance from that fateful day half a century ago, even as the rest of the city has boomed around it.
Next to the red-brick school depository, cordoned off for the day, was the inconsequential-looking embankment that will forever be known as the "grassy knoll", the source of so many conspiracy theories about another gunman.
More than 60pc of Americans believe that Mr Kennedy's assassination was the result of a conspiracy. Some, such as Emile Gosselin, were in yesterday's crowd.
"The fatal shot came from that knoll, not from Oswald," said Mr Gosselin, who arrived for this ceremony looking the part, with a Stars and Stripes cap and flag poking out of his collar. "I am here to honour a great president whose life was cut so short."
At a nearby hotel, supporters of different conspiracy theories held their own gathering before moving to Dealey Plaza after the main event was over. They had also gathered at Dealey Plaza on Thursday where many chanted: "No more lies. No more lies."
Earlier in the day, bagpipers set the mood on a grey morning in Washington as Kennedy's last living sibling participated in a wreath-laying to commemorate the anniversary of his death.
The ceremony, featuring Jean Kennedy Smith, who at 85 is the president's last surviving sibling, started a day of commemorations of her brother's death.
Philip Sherwell, Dallas
(© Daily Telegraph, London)