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Kennedy Assassination Still Affects Residents of Dallas 40 Years Later - 2003-11-21

People across the United States and worldwide will take time on Saturday to remember the assassination of President John F. Kennedy 40 years ago. Nowhere was the impact of that terrible day, November 22, 1963, felt more deeply than in the city where it happened, Dallas, Texas.

Most of the people who live in Dallas today were not even born when President Kennedy was assassinated here and yet they feel the impact the event had on their city. Linda, a 20-year-old clerk whose office is only two blocks from the site of the assassination at Dealey Plaza, says she rarely thinks about the historic event, but that the anniversary always draws an emotional reaction.

"Sadness (comes), I guess, around this time, yes it does. It is sad and it makes me want to cry sometimes, at this particular time," she said.

Linda and many other Dallas residents say they understand the attention focused on their city because of the assassination, but that they also believe there is much more to Dallas than this one event.

Dallas has been the victim of what some call a dark legend. At the time of the assassination many people believed the city somehow shared the blame for the crime. Americans were angry and some focused their scorn on Dallas.

But historian Darwin Payne, who worked as a reporter with the now-defunct Dallas Times Herald newspaper, says the people he saw in Dealey Plaza that day were very upset. "People were terrified. They were in shock, many of them in tears and they just could not believe that it had happened," he said.

Mr. Payne says a small group of rightwing activists had assembled in Dallas to protest the Kennedy visit. Only the month before these groups had heckled and jeered United Nations ambassador Adlai Stevenson during a speech he gave in the city. In an effort to counter the troublemakers, he says, city leaders made a big effort to give the president a genuinely warm reception.

"Since they had anticipated problems and tried to prepare the city to give the president a cordial welcome without any hostility evident that made it especially hurtful for that to happen," he said. "It would have been devastating, of course, under any circumstances, but the fact that so much effort had been put into making certain that he had a good reception here that made the tragedy all that much worse."

The place where the awful memory of November 22, 1963 is kept alive in Dallas is the sixth-floor museum in the old Texas School Depository building near Dealey Plaza. Assassin Lee Harvey Oswald is believed to have fired the fatal shots from a window on the sixth floor of the building.

Gary Mack, director of the museum, says the news media are to blame for the dark blemish on the city's reputation.

"The stigma is there because the Kennedy assassination was the first time the national broadcast media grouped the whole country together and shared all that experience," he said. "Unfortunately, it was the outside reporters who knew nothing about Texas or what Dallas was about who tossed their own observations in and painted a one-sided picture of the city and that is the source of the resentment that Dallasites (Dallas residents) have had."

Mr. Mack says the city has grown greatly in size since 1963 and is now known around the world for much more than a dark day in history. Yet, he says, in many ways the assassination remains a problem for Dallas.

"The city of Dallas was treated very unfairly by the national press and the world press," he said. "Dallas was given a stereotypic image as a city of crazy people and it is not and was not then. The city has tried to grow beyond that and it has been very difficult because the Kennedy assassination follows behind. The assassination, in fact, is a current event here. Hardly a week goes by when there is not something in the local media about the Kennedy assassination, whether it is a new theory or that one of the witnesses has passed away."

Out of respect for the wishes of the Kennedy family, Dallas officials will not hold any formal ceremony on the anniversary. The family wants President Kennedy remembered for his life, not his death, they say. The only scheduled event tied to the assassination anniversary is a performance by the Dallas Symphony orchestra of a work commissioned many years ago by former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy to commemorate her husband.