The JFK Assassination

ANGLES, & RESOURCES

The following are suggested story angles and experts concerning the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. For information and appointments with experts, contact the Office of News and Communications at 214-768-7650 or by e-mail at news@smu.edu. See our full list of experts.

Teaching the assassination to Generation Y

DALLAS (SMU) – How do you teach the turmoil of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination to students with no frame of reference for cold war paranoia, the turbulent 60s and the romanticism of a presidential Camelot? SMU political science professor Dennis Simon and senior English lecturer Tom Stone are embracing the challenge as they teach a special course to undergraduates during the fall months leading up to the 50th commemoration of JFK’s assassination in Dallas. Read more.

Experts and angles:

  • Tom Stone, SMU senior lecturer in English, who has taught the courses for 18 years.
  • Dennis Simon, political science professor, brings to the new course analysis of political thought in the JFK era, as well as the impact of the assassination on the nation’s political trajectory.

Archival resources:


Kennedy and the Cold War

"Kennedy was a Cold War president. He managed the nearest thing to a full-scale nuclear war the world had ever seen: the Cuban Missile Crisis. He went eyeball-to-eyeball with the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev over a divided Berlin. He oversaw significant combat deployments in Vietnam. His death saw American nuclear forces raised to one of their highest alert levels in history, while his successor, Texas’ own Lyndon B. Johnson, in time orchestrated the largest overseas military deployment since World War II to some minds, the only war America ever truly 'lost.' In short, the shocking events of November 1963 changed Dallas forever; they also directly affected events and decisions the world over."

Jeffrey A. Engel, founding director of SMU’s Center for Presidential History, is a prize-winning historian of American foreign policy and the presidency. He is available to discuss the way Kennedy’s life and death altered America’s engagement with the world, and more broadly American diplomatic and political history, and the men who occupied the Oval Office. Author and editor of seven books on American foreign policy, he has worked with President George H.W. Bush as editor of the latter’s China Diary, and is currently writing Seeking Monsters to Destroy: American Language and War from Jefferson to Obama, and When the World Seemed New: American Foreign Policy in the Age of George H.W. Bush.


Sermons and Commentary

The SMU Bridwell Library collection includes sermons and public commentary made following the assassination of President Kennedy. Among them are remarks by Levi A. Olan, a respected rabbi, author, educator, and community leader known as “the conscience of Dallas."

"What should Dallas do now?" Olan asked during his sermon of January 19, 1964. "For its psychological well being it ought to accept blame and responsibility for its behavior and act upon that now. It is getting later all the time. Its moral climate needs some lifting up so that it can rise above the fourth level of values which determines all things by, "what is there in it for me?" The church and synagogue are charged with the responsibility of talking to the people, not reflecting their present values. Perhaps to paraphrase the late President, our value system in Dallas ought to be, "ask not what Dallas can do for me - but what can I do for Dallas?"

A recording and text of that sermon and one given a year after the assassination, as well as a listing of the other sermons and documents, are available by clicking here.


Can an Entire City be Blamed for an Assassination?

In 1963, Dallas was known for its peculiar brand of right-wing extremism, says Darwin Payne, SMU professor emeritus of communications, who as a young newspaper reporter covered the assassination. Two incidents before the assassination seared this image into the national consciousness: During the 1960 presidential campaign, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson were nearly attacked by a screaming mob of Dallas residents outside a downtown hotel and later, only a month before the assassination, Democratic leader Adlai Stevenson was heckled loudly at a speech. This climate of extremism caused many Americans to blame the entire city for the president's death, Payne says. Out of tragedy, however, rose a more moderate city leadership.

"The extreme right wingers were tolerated by the power brokers. After the assassination, city leaders wanted to moderate those tensions. At the time, Dallas had the nation's most conservative congressman and the only Texas Republican in Congress, Bruce Alger. The power brokers ran then-mayor Earle Cabell against him and defeated him," Payne says.

Documents chronicling this painful time are in SMU's DeGolyer Library. They include the hate mail sent to former mayor Earle Cabell and the papers of retail magnate Stanley Marcus, who became a voice of moderation, helping the city heal its wounded pride.

Payne has published a biography on Judge Sarah T. Hughes, who swore in Lyndon Johnson as the nation's 36th President on Air Force One. He also compiled the book, Reporting the Kennedy Assassination: Journalists Who Were There Recall Their Experiences, is the result of reunion of reporters organized by Payne in 1993.


Returning to the Scene of the Crime: The Consumerism of Tragedy

Ford's Theatre, Dealey Plaza, the Lorraine Motel and the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Once just real estate, today symbols of national pain. The more famous they are in eliciting memories, the more people flock to them. Why do scenes of national tragedy become tourist attractions? Daniel Howard, professor of marketing in SMU's Cox School of Business, says consumers have a better memory for negative information than positive information.

"Outside of Dallas, if you ask people what year the Dallas Cowboys won the Super Bowl, most people couldn't tell you. But when you ask them where President Kennedy was killed, they know it was Dallas," Howard says. Negative information is generally remembered more readily than positive information because in terms of human evolution it has survival value. With places where great tragedy occurred, Daniel says the exception always translates into perception.

"People remember Dallas as the place where President Kennedy was killed because not many American presidents are assassinated anywhere. The exception is the perception," he says.

Related Experts:

  • Daniel Howard, SMU professor of marketing in the Cox School of Business, who is an expert on consumer psychology.
  • Professor Dennis Simon, SMU associate professor of political science, teaches a course on the American presidency and can address how the JFK assassination represented America's "first national funeral" -- more than 60 percent of the country at the time had TV sets and shared in the same images of the assassination and its aftermath.

JFK Memories from the Files of Retail Magnate Stanley Marcus

In the fashion world, Stanley Marcus was known as a man of taste and style. In Dallas he was revered for his leadership, especially after the JFK tragedy. In the aftermath of the assassination, Marcus helped the city to restore its wounded pride. He became a leading voice for political moderation and racial unity. The Stanley Marcus Collection, housed in SMU's DeGolyer Library, chronicles his impact on Dallas and his memories of JFK. Documents include his papers back to 1950. Besides the JFK assassination, topics range from the anti-communism movement in Dallas to the civil rights movement. The overall scope of the collection will provide researchers with information on various fields from the fashion industry to the Dallas history, including such items as:

A specially bound and printed copy of "The Unspoken Speech of John F. Kennedy," which called for the United States to stay the course in Vietnam. Marcus sent the bound version as a gift to Jackie Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Adlai Stevenson.

Letters to and from Marcus about his testimony in a change-of-venue hearing for Jack Ruby. Some Marcus letters are accompanied by returned Neiman Marcus credit cards.

"Marcus was one of dozens of Dallasites subpoenaed by Ruby's defense attorney Melvin Belli," Payne says. "He had no choice but to testify. His opinion was that a change of venue was appropriate, which I think was correct. So, he was not on a bandwagon to change the venue. People were just eager to jump on him because he testified that he thought Ruby could have a fair trial elsewhere."

Hundreds of letters sent to Marcus in response to his editorial "What's Right With Dallas?"

"Intended for the citizens of Dallas, this editorial was significant because of who Marcus was," Payne says. "He was a liberal who wanted to come to the city's defense over its extremist reputation. In this editorial, Marcus said that Dallas was a place of harmony and goodwill, but he also pointed out the things that needed correcting, such as the political extremism. Others had written similar editorials, but they didn't strike the right tone, and were criticized for it."

Hate mail sent to the city in the weeks after the assassination

One such letter reads: "What disgusts us above all, is the disrespect shown by your city to the Office of the President, not only the killing itself. If you would have been an actual foreign country, you would have been burnt to the ground!"

Documents from the fundraising committee to build a Kennedy Memorial in Dallas. The result is the simple Kennedy Memorial at Dealey Plaza dedicated in 1970 and designed by Phillip Johnson.


See our full list of experts.