JFK Assassination Examined:
The Sixth Floor Freezes Frames of National History
By Buffy Gilfoil
For an entire generation of Americans, Nov. 22, 1963, stands out as a day of infamy. Among those who are old enough to remember, few will ever forget where they were when they found out that John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been shot.
The Sixth Floor, a single-topic museum located where Lee Harvey Oswald is thought to have fired the fatal shots in Dallas, allows visitors to relive, or experience for the first time, the events of that fateful day in American history.
The Sixth Floor: John F. Kennedy and the Memory of a Nation contains few artifacts, as much of the physical evidence is in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The story is told instead by written panels, photographs (almost 400 of them), campaign posters and the like. Short films that accompany major segments not only contribute to the feeling of immediacy, but also recall the media blitz at the time of the actual assassination. But now order and perspective are imposed.
The exhibit starts with a view of the early ‘60s, an upbeat time in American history, when Elvis Presley was popular and color television was high tech.
Kennedy’s campaign, and his presidency, with the initiation of the Peace Corps, support of the space program and the redecoration of the White House, are also shown. He tells the nation that “The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans …” But, while the entire nation could rejoice at the birth of the first presidential baby in decades, consensus was lacking on the president’s support for civil rights. And the Bay of Pigs fiasco, part of Kennedy’s response to the communist threat, marred the Camelot image.
The second segment chronicles Kennedy’s trip to Dallas, part of a two-day, five-city tour undertaken to obtain political support for the 1964 election.
As museum-goes move into the third segment, titled, “The Crisis,” they walk past frames of home films showing the Kennedys’ limousine as it passed outside the building. In the first frames, Mrs. Kennedy is concerned about nothing more than the wind blowing her hat. By the last, she and a secret service agent have climbed onto the trunk of the car.
As visitors walk past these images, they hear the announcement, “We interrupt this program to bring you a special bulletin from ABC radio.”
An old Associated Press Teletype machine is shown with the message: “STAY OFF ALL OF YOU STAY OFF AND KEEP OFF GET OFF.” The report that follows states that President Kennedy was shot, perhaps fatally. A second report states, “The president, his limp body cradled in the arms of his wife, Jacqueline, has been rushed to Parkland Hospital.”
Just past these displays, glass encloses cartons of books that are stacked in a corner, forming a re-creation of the sniper’s next. Visitors can stand at the next window to get approximately the same view as investigations show Lee Harvey Oswald had.
The film accompanying “The Crisis” shows the shooting of Oswald and a broadcaster talks about the gun he apparently used to shoot Kennedy. “Police have traced the rifle purchased in Chicago for $12.78. For the price of $12.78, the life of a president has apparently been bought.”
The film ends with an announcement by a dark-haired, fairly young news anchor. Walter Cronkite removes his Buddy Holly glasses as he says, “From Dallas, Texas – the flash apparently official – President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. … some 38 minutes ago.”
A photo shows Lyndon B. Johnson taking the oath of office aboard a steamy Air Force One, with a dazed Jacqueline Kennedy at his side.
The global response to Kennedy’s death is shown in the next part of the museum. Seating is provided for “The Nation and World Respond,” a film that is made more powerful by the absence of words. A widow kisses her husband’s flag-draped coffin; a boy too young to understand salutes his father for the last time; a riderless horse walks in the funeral procession. Newspapers in many languages tell of the tragedy, and in places of worship, people of differing religions eulogize Kennedy and mourn his passing. The final shot is of the eternal flame at Kennedy’s grave.
The next segment, dealing with investigations, asks as many questions as it answers. It presents the Warren Commission report as well as those critical of it. Forensic, ballistic, acoustic and photographic evidence are mentioned and photo panels show some of the volumes that have been written on the topic.
The last segment, “The Legacy,” examines the contributions of the Kennedy presidency and the significance of his assassination. A gray-haired Walter Cronkite, no longer wearing glasses, tells of the irony of Kennedy’s relationship with television. The 35th president was the first to use the medium effectively to showcase his programs, as well as his wit and humor. And coverage of the assassination revolutionized television news.
Cronkite speculates on the reasons Kennedy’s popularity and rise to mythic stature. Wile the Kennedy’s looks and youth may partially explain the nation’s personal affection for their leader, Cronkite says, “Or is it a search for lost innocence and a renewed sense of optimism? Perhaps we associate him with happier times.”
This same sense of well-being and hope, along with the perspective of The Sixth Floor, may also account for the museum’s appeal among a population dominated by baby boomers.
Before leaving The Sixth Floor, museum-goers may write in memory books, which reflect, to some extent, the demographics of visitors. Foreigners, who account for about 10 percent of the visits, seem to write a higher proportion of the comments. Residents of Dallas and Fort Worth, who account for only about 15 percent of museum visits, write few of the comments.
Many sentiments are similar. A Californian wrote, “I was in high school when JFK was shot. I’ll never forget that day. And now here I am where it all happened … I never thought I’d be here to see this. It brought back sad memories. This was very interesting and worthwhile.”
Another, apparently the Californian’s son, wrote, “On that November day in 1963, a great man died, but more than that, a dream died. I wish I were old enough to have seen Kennedy.”
Thus, in a way, The Sixth Floor allows the torch to be passed to yet another generation.