"I always tell people I'm not a bookworm. I'm a book anaconda," John Judge says, as he turns sideways and carefully maneuvers his large frame down a narrow staircase into the main library of the Coalition on Political Assassinations, a nonprofit dedicated to researching the killings of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. Carved deep into a hill in Penn Branch, a quiet, leafy community in Southeast Washington, the room might otherwise be a basement, were the house not inhabited by a man who for the past 45 years has been obsessively reading and researching every facet of the Kennedy assassination.
He scans through hundreds of books, carefully pulling from the shelves some of the foundational texts of the assassination canon: Mark Lane's best-selling Rush to Judgment, the first book he ever read on the case, and Robert Groden and Harrison Edward Livingstone's High Treason: The Assassination of JFK & the Case for Conspiracy. Judge gestures to 26 hardcover volumes of the Warren Commission report, the official government investigation that fingered Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone gunman. On a shelf beside him sits a self-satirical bumper sticker: "Humpty Dumpty was pushed." Judge, who has wavy silver-white hair and a goatee that fans out beneath his chin, smirks, "I tell people you can call me a conspiracy theorist if you call everyone else a coincidence theorist."
He pauses and picks a collector's item from the stacks: one of the now out-of-print volumes of Penn Jones Jr.'s tome about a conspiracy to kill the president, Forgive My Grief. Jones was a Texas newspaperman and one of the original JFK assassination researchers. One year after the assassination, he came to the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza, where some witnesses say they heard shots fired that day, to hold a moment of silence. Judge joined him in 1968 and continued the tradition every year, taking over the ceremonies when Jones grew ill.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination. By the admission of most of the assassination researchers (they hate the term "conspiracy theorists"), it's also their last, best shot at reigniting a public debate about what really happened that day. "The 50th anniversary will really be one of the last opportunities to really get this out into the public domain," says James DiEugenio, cofounder of the Citizens for Truth About the Kennedy Assassination. "I really and truly believe that the Kennedy assassination was quite epochal; it had reverberations down to present day," he says. "What has happened over time is that cynicism and skepticism have seeped down into the public at large. It has caused a lot of serious problems about peoples' belief in government and has splintered our society."
Judge says, "We are passing into a post-historical era, and it probably is, maybe not the last gasp, but the largest last gasp of the issue." It's also the first year they won't get to be in the plaza on Nov. 22 at 12:30 p.m.
Dallas knows the world will be watching that day, and the city intends to be ready. "The international spotlight will shine intensely on our city, perhaps brighter than it has since that gut-wrenching day in 1963," Mayor Mike Rawlings said in an op-ed for The Dallas Morning News last week. So Rawlings, along with a committee of Dallas's best known Brahmins, civic leaders with deep ties to the city, have carefully planned an event they're calling "the 50th."
They don't intend to use the word assassination. The event "is all about acknowledging the life, legacy, and leadership of the 35th president, not the moment 50 years ago," says one of the press handlers helping with the ceremony. Historian David McCullough will read from Kennedy speeches, the U.S. Naval Academy Men's Glee Club will sing, religious leaders will offer prayers. A ceremonial flyover will take place, and church bells will ring throughout the city. Around 12:30 p.m., participants will observe a moment of silence. The only thing that will be missing are some of the people who have been coming to Dealey Plaza for decades. The city offered only 5,000 tickets, to be distributed through a lottery, and asked applicants to submit to a background check—meaning that most of the assassination researchers will be shut out. "We've been doing this for 49 years, and there's no reason to usurp it," Judge says. "We could have been accommodated, but we weren't—we think, on the basis of our message."
The stakes go beyond granting the conspiracists some measure of credibility. For the city, the anniversary may be its best chance to finally put one of the most painful periods in modern American history behind it, an opportunity to show that Dallas has moved beyond the image it cultivated in the assassination era as a polestar of political extremism. To understand the fight between the researchers and the city is to understand how Dealey Plaza became a symbolic battleground for a much larger war over the legacy of Dallas and of how history remembers what happened to JFK.
The Taint of History
The researchers haven't yet decided what they plan to do. One created a website called Occupy the Grassy Knoll, suggesting an act of civil disobedience to protest the curtailment of their First Amendment rights. (Judge expects 250 attendees for a conference this month in Dallas.) Brad Kizzia, an attorney who has provided counsel to Judge, says they're still considering whether to file a lawsuit. For COPA and the others, the city's actions are evidence that the Dallas old guard hasn't dealt with the wounds of its past. "If we cannot allow people to mention the assassination or what happened that day and what questions remain, if we have to go to these lengths to keep people from doing that on the 50th anniversary, then obviously we haven't confronted it, and we're not able to—at least the people who are running things have not and cannot," Kizzia says.
If Dallas is still struggling to reckon with history, the burden is not just the assassination itself but also the lingering aftermath. Pre-assassination Dallas was a hotbed of right-wing extremism, blamed for creating a culture of violence that preceded the president's death. Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy's running mate, was accosted by angry, spitting protesters on a campaign stop three years earlier. When Adlai Stevenson, then the U.N. ambassador, visited the city just a month before the assassination, a protester hit him on the head. The Dallas Morning News regularly attacked Kennedy's policies in its editorials, and its publisher, Ted Dealey (the plaza is named after his father), had sharply criticized the president at a White House meeting two years earlier. On the day Kennedy visited, the paper ran an antagonistic full-page ad, "Welcome Mr. Kennedy to Dallas," demanding to know why the administration was being soft on communism.
Jim Schutze, a columnist for the Dallas Observer who has been following the Dealey Plaza controversy for years and criticizing the city's treatment of the conspiracy theorists, recently wrote: "For the people who were kids or young adults when it happened, members of the families or the general social class that was blamed, I think the Kennedy assassination may have been a very damaging formative event in their early personal development. Now in their old age, for them Dealey Plaza has become a hated cemetery where all of their youthful demons dwell and all of them look like Robert Groden with horns."