Dallas Is Still Looking for Catharsis 50 Years After the JFK Assassination

This article appears in the November edition of D Magazine.

How do you commemorate civic embarrassment? That’s the question Dallas officials face with each anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The usual answers: public mourning, ritualized grief, orchestrated self-flagellation. For the 50th anniversary, the city’s official commemoration will be a stuffy and highly sanitized affair in Dealey Plaza, and the goal will be to project public remorse while mitigating the potentiality of civic embarrassment. The irony is that the sorrow Dallas continually seeks to express only underscores Dallas’ uncomfortable relationship with the events. Fifty years after that terrible day, we continue to mourn—and continue to avoid anything that grapples directly with what that historical moment means to this city.

This year, though, there’s one organization taking a bolder approach to understanding what the assassination’s legacy means for Dallas. On November 2, the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture will host a symposium titled “Understanding Tragedy: The Impact of the JFK Assassination on Dallas.” The idea is to stage a public debate featuring more than 20 journalists, educators, poets, playwrights, politicians, and religious leaders, as well as members of the general public, all addressing the relationship between the assassination and Dallas’ civic identity.

It’s not the first time this city will see a group of talking heads gather to discuss JFK and Dallas, but the institute’s event feels different in both structure and approach. Conversations will begin with individual remarks, followed by panel discussions broken out by topic—journalism, politics, art and humanities, religion—and finished off with roundtable seminar discussions. “Dallas has yet to acknowledge the full impact of the JFK assassination on our city,” says Gail Thomas, one of the institute’s founders. “Dallasites did not want to accept the fact that it happened here. But it did happen here, and it is a huge part of Dallas’ myth—the story of our coming into being of who we are as a city.”

For Larry Allums, the institute’s director, that story parallels an ancient source, the Greek playwright Aeschylus’ Oresteia. In the trio of tragic plays, successive intrafamilial murders destroy a royal household, and the city can only come to grips with the violence that killed its rulers through a public trial that prompts social catharsis, a kind of ritualized purgation. This experience of catharsis is what Allums hopes the symposium will provoke.

“Some of it may get right heated,” Allums says. “It is going to be an unpredictable thing, but I think it will be worth it.”

But can a symposium realistically purge 50 years of internalized guilt and shame? And will this conversation—even if it includes notable writers and journalists such as Jim Lehrer, Stephen Carter, Richard Rodriguez, and Lawrence Wright, as well as prominent local politicians Mayor Mike Rawlings and former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison—really be that different from the many other conversations surrounding the 50th anniversary?

The framing of the event, in itself, is indicative of an evolving sensibility. But it came with pushback. “There are some very important people in this city who just don’t want to do this,” Allums says. “They said to me, ‘Leave that alone.’ ” Still, one of Dallas’ prominent cultural institutions found the gumption to take aim at the most uncomfortable aspect of the assassination for Dallas: JFK’s death plays a defining role in who we are.

For many Dallasites, this has been the most difficult aspect of the legacy to swallow. So much of Dallas’ shame is bound up in the blow it took to the city’s image, a city that in 1963 was already desperate to project its best self to the world. In the aftermath, Dallas’ self-marketing was ensnared in suspicion and conspiracy, and an excessively image anxious city was struck by the worst PR blow in human history.

But the Dallas Institute’s JFK symposium isn’t addressing public image. It’s addressing the reality that events of this magnitude leave an indelible mark on a city, one that can’t be marketed out of its identity. It rejects the fallacy of 50 years of remorseful commemorations, which, for all their desire to lay the embarrassment to rest, can’t help but read as a kind of mea culpa. And instead of dealing with the assassination in terms of how we are seen by others, it’s considering it as something integral to how we understand ourselves.

“Every great city, just as every great human figure, endures a deep wound that conditions the entity into a more profound level of being,” Thomas says. “But greatness demands gravitas. And Dallas’ gravitas involves our assimilation of the fact that one of the most profoundly tragic moments in history took place in our city.”