OKLAHOMA CITY — Fifty years ago, this coming November, will mark a time in United State’s history that was dominated by post-war baby boom teenagers and movement away from the conservative fifties. “To Kill A Mockingbird” was published in 1960. College campuses became scenes of protest. The Civil Rights movement made great changes in society. And President John F. Kennedy was shot to death on Nov. 22, 1963 by Lee Harvey Oswald.
Young and charismatic, JFK’s short time as president is still revered and referred to by many as a sort of Camelot. Such idealism of JFK, along with his assassination, has haunted those alive at the time of his assassination to the present day. Stephen Fagin, author of “Assassination and Commemoration: JFK, Dallas, and The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza,” said his book was inspired by the shock and mourning of JFK’s death he saw manifested in his parents, who were elementary children in Dallas at the time of the shooting.
“Assassination and Commemoration” recounts the painful process by which Dallas and the nation came to terms with its collective memory of the assassination and its aftermath. Fagin explained that his book is different from other books about JFK’s assassination because the assassination is just the beginning of the story he tells. The book focuses on the decade-long work of people determined to shake the shame that followed Dallas after the assassination, and the transformation of the Texas School Book Depository in Dealy Plaza from a blight on the city to a sacred memorial.
“The political atmosphere in Dallas at the time of the shooting was volatile. People thought Dallas was a city of hate,” Fagin said. “The transformation of the depository into a museum was a long process. The museum founders, Conover Hunt and Lindalyn Adams, faced opposition from those who said the building could be nothing but a shrine to Oswald to historic preservation hurdles to even DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) wanting to build a line through the area.”
In 1989, Fagin toured the Sixth Floor Museum the week it opened, and his fascination with the unforgettable American tragedy continued when he began working for the museum while attending Southern Methodist University as an undergraduate. “Assassination and Commemoration” began as Fagin’s master thesis in the Museum Studies graduate program at the University of Oklahoma. Fagin utilized the Sixth Floor Museum’s archives and had access to handwritten notes, memoranda, board minutes, architectural renderings and more while writing his book.
Fagin said the biggest difficulty he faced while writing “Assassination and Commemoration” was understanding and accepting the level of animosity directed toward the depository on its journey to become a museum.
“Having been part of the museum for so long, I only knew it as a place of community gathering and an educational memorial,” Fagin said. “I hope my book answers the question of what was going on at the depository from ‘63 to ‘89. There were two arson attempts; the building was owned by a country music artist; and a group tried to tear the building down.”
Today, the Sixth Floor Museum is the second most visited historic site in Texas after the Alamo and brings in 350,000 visitors every year. The museum continues to collect oral histories from individuals alive at the time of JFK’s assassination and currently has over 11,000 recordings. Fagin said he plans to make 150 new recordings this year.
“This is still a story that can move and touch people. It has cultural resonance,” Fagin said. “Everyone I interview has a story to tell about President Kennedy’s assassination or the time period.”
Fagin has conducted interviews with Walter Cronkite, the CBS broadcaster who announced JFK’s death; police officers on the scene; and witnesses of the shooting. But out of all his interviews, Fagin said some of the lesser known stories are what really add depth to the oral histories. Dorothy M. Bush, for example, was Oswald’s ninth-grade science teacher. Fagin interviewed Bush when she was 91-years-old and he said Bush painted a picture of Oswald that only she could know. Bush died a year after the interview, he said.
“These lesser known stories mean the most and add so much to the oral history we’ve created at the museum,” Fagin said. “We don’t want to loose these voices.”
Somewhat of a trail blazer for memorial sites, Fagin said he hopes his book and the history of the museum help people understand the ways we preserve the past. Other sites like that of Tom Ford Theater, which took 100 years to memorialize, moved slowly to recognize their importance to the American public.
“The window of preserving tragedy is shrinking,” Fagin explained. “At the time of the museum it was ‘why do we preserve what hurts.’ Now it’s ‘we have to preserve what hurts.’”
For more information about Fagin’s book, visit oupress.com. Signed copies of “Assassination and Commemoration” are available now at Full Circle Bookstore, 50 Penn Place, until all copies are sold. For more information about the museum or oral histories available for research, visit jfk.org.