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Dallas, Texas:  'Sixth Floor' Museum Draws Crowds - 2002-04-25

Many people around the world remember Dallas, Texas as the site of the "shots that shook the world", the sniper shots that killed President John F. Kennedy in 1963. The building from where the shots were fired, the old Texas School Book Depository, is now a museum dedicated to the memory of President Kennedy.

It is chilling to watch the video of John and Jackie Kennedy descend the steps of Air Force One at Dallas' Love Field airport, where only two and a half hours later, the assassinated President's body would be returned. As you gaze through a museum window over Elm Street traffic, proceeding west toward Dealey Plaza, you re-live that infamous day.

"There were three shots fired. The spot where the fatal shot hit is marked there on the street and Dealey Plaza has changed very little since 1963 [it] still retains a lot of its original character and flavor. The buildings around here are the same as they were then," says Sam Childers, the marketing manager of the Sixth Floor Museum.

Childers: "But the window here behind me is where the evidence was found minutes after the shots were fired and the police entered this building.
Hoke:"And why is it boarded off with these glass panels?"
Childers:"It's mainly for preservation. We want to preserve the floor, we want to preserve the actual window and we don't want anything to happen again."

Mr. Childers says the exhibit devoted to the memory of President John Kennedy is designed so that people who are too young to remember the event can get an idea of what the United States was like in the early 1960s. The exhibit starts with President Kennedy's election to the White House and some of his major achievements, including the creation of the Peace Corps.

Mr. Childers says the exhibit also sheds light on the President's reasons for coming to Texas in November 1963. "It was the year before the re-election year and Texas was going to be very pivotal to Kennedy's re-election so he came here actually to shore up two differing factions of the Democratic Party here in Texas, the Conservatives and the Liberals," he says.

More than 200,000 people gathered in downtown Dallas to give a warm welcome to the young president and his elegant wife, although his civil rights bill was not popular in the conservative south. "And as they [the motorcade] turned onto Houston Street, Nellie Connally who was the wife of the governor [of Texas], turned to John Kennedy and said: 'Mr. President, you can't say Dallas doesn't love you,' and those were some of the last words that John Kennedy ever heard," says Mr. Childers.

Sam Childers says many of the photographs showing the crucial moments of the tragedy were taken by amateurs, people who were lining the streets to watch the motorcade. One of the most poignant is a black-and-white photo in which Mrs. Kennedy is looking right into the camera. "A 16-year old girl took this picture just as they turn in front of the building here," he says.

Dallas resident Abraham Zapruder made the best known footage of the assassination, seconds before and after it occurred. His filming has been included in most documentaries on President Kennedy's death and shown around the world. "Since we have so many school children here, we try to be very sensitive about this issue, so we don't actually show the actual head shot frame," he says.

Visitors from around the globe began coming to Dealey Plaza shortly after the assassination. But for many years, the city tried to obliterate the memory of the tragic events.

Jeff West, director of the Sixth Floor Museum says after more than two decades of attempting to bury the memory of the assassination, the city leaders realized that public curiosity and the historical significance of the event demanded an accounting.

"If you come to Dallas, you are going to do a few things and one of those is to see the site where President Kennedy was assassinated. That site is Dealey Plaza where the motorcade route took place on Elm Street," he says. "The building is right adjacent to that, right beside it and so you would point at the building, look up at that window, wonder what's going on up there, but of course it was locked to public access."

The Sixth Floor Museum opened in 1989, more than a quarter century after President Kennedy's assassination. Close to half a million people visit the Dallas landmark every year.