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Politics

Dallas tries to make its peace with fateful day

Dallas will hold an official ceremony Friday at Dealey Plaza, which is visited by thousands of people each day.

RALPH LAUER FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Dallas will hold an official ceremony Friday at Dealey Plaza, which is visited by thousands of people each day.

DALLAS — Fifty years later, the memory of the worst day in Dallas history is as fresh for Lindalyn Adams as the daily, recurring reminders in Dealey Plaza below her. Supported by a cane, a hand steadied on a windowsill, the 83-year-old Adams looks down from a seventh-floor window in the most infamous building in Texas.

“I cried more than I’ve ever cried in my life,” Adams says quietly, her gaze fixed below on a throng of rapt tourists and persistent hawkers.

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Adams stands exactly above the sniper’s nest, one floor beneath her, where Lee Harvey Oswald is said to have fired the bullets that killed President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. “It was so horrible, so horrible,” Adams says, shaking her head slightly.

After a half-century, most Americans have no personal recollection of the assassination. But visitors keep streaming to Dealey Plaza anyway — thousands of them every day, more than 1 million a year, meandering through a Texas tourist destination whose historical appeal is eclipsed only by the Alamo.

It’s part of what travelers do in Dallas, craning their necks toward the window where Oswald pulled the trigger, walking up the grassy knoll where conspiracy theorists believe a second gunman stood, gauging the difficulty of hitting a moving target in an open-top limousine.

After 20 minutes, or an hour, the tourists leave Dealey Plaza, which has barely changed since that faraway Friday. But for many residents in Dallas, derided for years afterward as the “city of hate,” that place and day cannot be left behind.

Lindalyn Adams looked down from the seventh floor of the Texas School Book Depository, one floor above where Lee Harvey Oswald fired his rifle.

RALPH LAUER FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Lindalyn Adams looked down from the seventh floor of the Texas School Book Depository, one floor above where Lee Harvey Oswald fired his rifle.

“There is no way we can ever erase the horror and sorrow of that time,” said Julian Read, who rode in Kennedy’s motorcade as press secretary to Governor John Connally of Texas, who was wounded in the shooting. “But with all that’s being done, I hope we can come to peace with this day.”

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For the first time since the assassination, the city will hold an official, significant ceremony at Dealey Plaza on Friday to mark the anniversary. The historian David McCullough is scheduled to speak, as is Mayor Mike Rawlings, a first-term Democrat and graduate of Boston College. A Naval Academy chorus is planning to sing before an audience limited to 5,000 people, and bells will ring throughout the city.

The decades-long path to this event, paid for with $3 million in private donations, had been acrimonious at its beginning. Some civic leaders sought to demolish the Texas School Book Depository, where Oswald fired his rifle, and others stridently opposed transforming part of the building into a museum, which it is today.

“This was a period when Dallas was very much going forward through denial,” said Stephen Fagin, associate curator at The Sixth Floor Museum.

If denial was being practiced in the city, the assassination was often impossible to ignore out of state. Dallas businessmen were tossed out of cabs in New York, residents said. Long-distance phone calls were disconnected, restaurant service was denied, and insults surfaced with regularity.

On a vacation to the Virgin Islands, Adams recalled, she and her late husband mentioned that they lived in Dallas. The resort worker replied, “Oh, that’s where you kill presidents.”

According to Fagin, a letter from that time was addressed to “Shame On You, Texas,” instead of the correct location of Dallas. The US Postal Service, Fagin said, knew exactly where to deliver the envelope.

“It had an incredible impact, an unfortunate impact on this community and this state,” said Mark Connally, 61, the former governor’s son. “Unfortunately, all the good things get lost, and we’ve all had to live with the regret of what happened here.”

Adams, who helped shepherd The Sixth Floor Museum to reality, said that for years she had avoided looking at the former book depository, where Oswald worked after his return to Dallas the month before the assassination.

“That’s not unusual for Dallasites,” Adams said.

What did seem unusual, she added, was the damage to the city and its psyche. Los Angeles was not blamed for Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1968, she said, and neither was Memphis for the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“I don’t know how someone puts himself in the position of living here and knowing the world thinks of you as a terrible place, and that the city killed the president,” Adams said. “The city didn’t kill the president.”

***

However much Dallas wanted to distance itself from its “city of hate” label, the reputation did not surface in a vacuum. The early 1960s saw a strident, extreme brand of conservatism emerge in Dallas, which retained vestiges of the Jim Crow, segregated South amid a growing, national civil rights movement.

“It was a toxic element. Unfortunately, it became visible,” said Val Imm Bashour, society editor of the Dallas Times Herald in 1963. “It’s like all things that are radical. You know, it’s sort of like the bombings that you all had in Boston. There are just these elements that get carried away and will do anything that they feel accomplishes their purpose.”

Bashour saw one of the most publicized episodes of that vitriol firsthand, less than a month before Kennedy’s visit.

While Bashour interviewed Adlai Stevenson, the US ambassador to the United Nations, one of 100 angry protesters used a sign to strike the two-time Democratic nominee for president on the head. Another spat at him.

Self-styled “assassination researchers” periodically mark the spots where bullets struck the president, but the city removes the markings, only to find them repainted once again.

LM OTERO/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Self-styled “assassination researchers” periodically mark the spots where bullets struck the president, but the city removes the markings, only to find them repainted once again.

After the assault, Stevenson was heard to say, “Are these human beings, or are these animals?”

The spasms of hate did not target only Northerners deemed too liberal, or socialist, or even Communist by extremists in a city that had become a Southwestern headquarters for the radical-right John Birch Society.

Three years earlier, after Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas had agreed to become Kennedy’s running mate, he and his wife, Lady Bird, were accosted by a screaming crowd as they arrived at the Adolphus Hotel here.

Nearby stood Representative Bruce Alger, a Republican from Dallas, hoisting a sign that read, “LBJ Sold Out to Yankee Socialists.”

Texas oil barons H.L. Hunt and Clint Murchison also helped lead the anti-Kennedy vanguard, which attacked the president for his Catholic religion and plans for expanded social programs, and feared that he would target tax breaks for the oil industry.

Much of the criticism was brazen and public, perhaps no more visible than when E.M. “Ted” Dealey, publisher of the Dallas Morning News, stood to address Kennedy at a White House luncheon for Texas newspaper publishers in 1961.

“We need a man on horseback to lead this nation, and many people in Texas and the Southwest think that you are riding Caroline’s tricycle,” Dealey said.

Bill Minutaglio, a University of Texas journalism professor and co-author of a new book called “Dallas 1963,” said the “citizen-kings” of Dallas at the time — in business, the church, and media — were virulently anti-Kennedy. “These were a handful of people who were extremely powerful and action-oriented people who had hijacked the microphone,” he said. “They began, frankly, a war to overthrow Kennedy.”

The irony is that Oswald had only a fleeting link to Dallas. He had moved back to the area only the month before the assassination, and his Marxist leanings had included support for Fidel Castro and his defection to the Soviet Union in 1959.

Such is the legacy that J. Erik Jonsson, the cofounder of high-tech pioneer Texas Instruments, inherited when he became mayor in 1964. But many of the seeds of modern, bustling Dallas, planted by Jonsson’s ambitious Goals for Dallas campaign, sprouted from that sense of collective shame, several city leaders said.

“Dream no small dreams,” urged Jonsson, who convened an unprecedented series of broad, diverse community meetings, which led to suggestions from tens of thousands of people.

A new City Hall designed by I.M. Pei arose across from a sparkling, new public library. Arts were encouraged, with the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center serving as a high-end complement to a budding downtown cultural scene.

The keystone was sprawling Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, a commerce-pumping behemoth that ranks third in the world in aircraft traffic. An era of fast growth followed, as well as a changing cachet influenced by the national popularity of the Dallas Cowboys football team and the hit TV show “Dallas.”

Despite the makeover, the taint of the assassination lingered as an unwelcome piece of municipal baggage. In the early 1970s, a movement to buy and demolish the former Texas School Book Depository, which lay vacant, found champions in Cowboys coach Tom Landry and businessman Ross Perot.

That effort spurred passionate debate about the city’s relationship to the shooting. In the end, the City Council defeated the demolition proposal. The building now houses The Sixth Floor Museum and — in a move fraught with forward-looking symbolism — the seat of Dallas County government.

“Dallas suffered so much. How does a community emerge from that?” asked Fagin in an interview at The Sixth Floor Museum, which opened in 1989. “This building became a manifestation of evolution for Dallasites.”

The sniper’s nest that Oswald occupied at a corner window in the sixth floor of the building has been part of the exhibits, but the curators take no position on whether he acted alone. The museum presents a fact-based look at the city’s darkest day, but they do so in historical context, Fagin said. Kennedy and his times and presidency are examined, as well as straightforward, nonjudgmental synopses of the conspiracy theories that have emerged over the years.

“Whatever baggage someone arrives with at the museum is the baggage someone leaves with,” Fagin said.

***

Over and over, city officials past and present say that Dallas moved on long ago, that the heinous act of a sociopathic gunman never defined a city that turned out by the thousands to give Kennedy a warm welcome before he was shot.

“You can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you, Mr. President,” Nellie Connally, the wife of the governor, turned and told Kennedy shortly before the fatal shots.

But since the assassination, that relationship has been conflicted at best. Dealey Plaza is a National Historic Site, but the landmark contains no official memorial to the president. Instead, a cenotaph erected by the city in 1970 to honor Kennedy is two blocks away, hidden from the plaza, behind a 19th-century courthouse.

A pair of X’s to mark the spots where bullets struck the president are periodically painted on Elm Street by self-styled “assassination researchers,” only to be removed by the city and then later repainted by the “researchers,” often conspiracy buffs.

And although the book depository was not demolished, planning for the 50th anniversary had no precedent.

For Mayor Rawlings, who was a Kansas fifth-grader in November 1963, striking the right tone for a ceremony at the assassination site became a delicate and complicated process.

“This was such an important moment in Dallas’s history,” Rawlings said. “The balance comes between honoring history and remembering history, and at the same time moving forward.”

Former mayor Ron Kirk, who served from 1995 to 2002 as the city’s first black chief executive, said that movement began decades ago.

“Black people, in particular, had put so much hope in Jack Kennedy’s administration,” said Kirk, a lawyer who also served as Texas secretary of state and President Obama’s trade representative. “But over the years, we’ve become much more progressive, much more inclusive. In one generation — one generation! — I grew up from being a boy in a state that denied my parents the right to vote to being the secretary of state.”

During international trips to promote the city, Kirk said, he routinely was asked about the assassination. “One of the things I would say,” he recalled, “is that if you look at me, you can see that Dallas has changed.”

What hasn’t changed, however, is keen interest in the assassination. Near Dealey Plaza, the JFK Assassination Tour picks up 25,000 visitors a year to retrace the route of the presidential motorcade. The trolleys also pass where Oswald lived, where he shot and killed Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit, and where he was captured at the Texas Theatre.

“We had some ladies crying today,” said Scott Astor, the tour operator.

As he spoke, books about the assassination and gruesome photos of Kennedy’s autopsy were hawked. Nearby, 77-year-old James Tague told anyone who would listen that he had been the “third man wounded” 50 years ago when a bullet struck the pavement and kicked up asphalt that nicked his face.

Less than 2 miles away, Heather Foerster served drinks and lunch at Lee Harvey’s, a dive bar in the Cedars neighborhood where Lee Harvey Oswald bobblehead dolls, outfitted with plastic rifles, can be bought for $20.

On Saturday, the bar is hosting a “John F. Kennedy 5oth Anniversary” party with “music all night” and cuts from a new album titled “Tragic Tales from the Grassy Knoll.”

Foerster smiled and shrugged when asked why a bar in Dallas, of all places, would adopt and flaunt Oswald’s name.

“What happened to us was horrible and insulting, and we’ve been unable to separate ourselves from it,” said the 40-year-old day manager. “We can’t escape it, so you just roll with it.”

Elsewhere in Dallas, the anniversary has evoked quiet reflection, combined with a hope that the city’s link to the assassination can finally cross a one-way bridge from memory to history.

For some residents, that prospect remains elusive. “It’s still there. It stuck. Now, here we go through the whole thing again,” says Lindalyn Adams, whose husband stood in the hospital elevator where Oswald, comatose, was rushed after being shot by Jack Ruby.

“I know it will be very solemn and very emotional, my goodness,” Adams says, looking ahead to Friday’s ceremony. “I hope it would be a closure, but I don’t think it will.”

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.

Correction: Due to incorrect information provided to the Globe, and earlier version of this story misattributed a quote by Nellie Connally, the wife of Governor John Connally.

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