Since the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum opened in 1979, the curators have avoided showing too much about the assassination of the young president.
On Friday, 50 years after Kennedy was shot to death in Dallas, the library at Columbia Point in Dorchester will open a small exhibit showing artifacts of the 35th president’s funeral it has never displayed before.
“We thought this was the appropriate time to bring them out,” said Stacey Bredhoff, the library’s curator. “We aimed to capture the grief and shock of that moment and the enormity of the event, especially for those who were too young to remember.”
In a room off the lobby, the library will display the cotton flag that draped the president’s coffin and the leather saddle, sword, and back-turned boots from Black Jack, the riderless horse that followed the president’s horse-drawn coffin in the cortege. Also exhibited are handwritten notes about the funeral by Jacqueline Kennedy, a green beret left by a serviceman on the gravesite, and historic footage and photographs of the state funeral.
The library expects a surge of visitors over the coming days, but it will close from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. Friday for a ceremony to honor Kennedy.
The ceremony, which will be televised, will include tributes from Governor Deval Patrick; singer-songwriter James Taylor; Chris Cassidy, the astronaut who recently returned from six months on the International Space Station; and Richard Blanco, the poet for President Obama’s inauguration in January, among others.
The ceremony will include a moment of silence at 2 p.m., when Kennedy’s death was announced on Nov. 22, 1963.
“We’re trying to strike the right balance of being respectful, almost reverential to this moment in our nation’s history,” said Tom Putnam, director of the library. “But we don’t want JFK's death to define his life. That’s why we hope the program is inspiring to new generations to live out the ideals that JFK championed.”
The exhibit is in a dimly lit room meant to feel somber.
Beside a photo showing the president and his wife beaming as they greet supporters the day before he was shot are these stark words that introduce the exhibit: “Across the country, everything stopped. It seemed impossible that the young president, who had ushered in a new era of American leadership with such dash and vision, was suddenly gone. The nation entered a state of suspended animation over the next three days as it paid its final respects.”
It explains how dignitaries from 92 countries attended the funeral and an estimated million people lined the streets of Washington to pay their respects.
The exhibit quotes a column by James Reston of The New York Times, who wrote: “What was killed in Dallas was not only the president but the promise. The death of youth and the hope of youth, of the beauty and grace and the touch of magic.”
In addition, there is a drawing of President Abraham Lincoln crying in his memorial by Bill Mauldin of The Chicago Sun-Times, which he sent to Jacqueline Kennedy, and a telegram sent to her from the widow of J.D. Tippit, the Dallas police officer killed the same day by accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
“My personal loss in this great tragedy prepares me to sympathize more deeply with you,” she wrote to Jacqueline Kennedy.
‘We’re trying to strike the right balance of being respectful, almost reverential to this moment in our nation’s history.’
Kennedy wrote back to her fellow widow: “There is another bond we share. We must remind our children all the time what brave men their fathers were.”
The riderless horse came from the Army’s oldest active infantry unit, the Third US Infantry Regiment, known as The Old Guard. A passage explains: “He alone defied the strict military discipline of the day with his rowdy behavior: prancing, throwing his head, and dancing around his walker, the 19-year-old soldier who was sure he would be sent to Greenland if the horse got loose.”
The short documentary featured in the exhibit begins with Erich Leinsdorf, the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, informing the audience that the president has just died and then leading the orchestra in a performance of the funeral march from Beethoven’s Third Symphony (“Eroica”). The documentary ends with a 21-gun salute and the lighting of the eternal flame by the president’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery.
The green beret was left by Command Sergeant Major Francis Ruddy in honor of the president who had championed special forces.
“He gave us the beret,” Ruddy said, according to the exhibit, “and we thought it fitting to give one back to him.”David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.