The Sixth Floor's Message to History: Just Hush Now

Someone with a lot of clout in this town thinks Dallas should clamp down on free speech at Dealey Plaza for the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination coming up next year. There's only one right way for free Americans to deal with that kind of thinking. Clamp down on Dallas.

In talking to assassination experts around the country for the past week or so, the phrase that pops up is "Occupy Dealey Plaza." I not only agree, I'd like to see what can be done to help make that happen.

So this column, in part, is an invitation. If anybody out there agrees with me, I will tell you how to get in touch. Let's do this thing.

Two weeks ago The Dallas Morning News published a story by Scott Parks quoting Nicola Longford, curator of the "Sixth Floor," the official Dallas assassination museum. She told Parks there should be no discussion of the shooting itself or the controversy, only a "moment of silence," which Longford apparently thinks should endure for an entire week.

That's a lot of silence. But maybe she thinks she can pull it off. The city has violated its own longstanding policies on access to Dealey Plaza by granting Longford a permit for a full week of exclusive control over the site of the assassination. The exclusivity of the permit, barring others from the plaza, is a first, according to people who have been involved in previous observances.

They have been told no one else can be given an equivalent permit that entire week, a fact confirmed for me last week by the city official in charge. Jill Beam of the city's special events office also confirmed she is directing all groups with questions about the 50th to call Longford, effectively making her the de facto commissar of all 50th-anniversary observances, even though she is the employee of a nonprofit that is not supposed to be a part of city government.

Longford does not come across as a commissar, more as a curator who has been put in a tough position, by whom we do not know. I can't help suspecting the same brilliant leadership that wants to build a highway in the flood zone along the Trinity River — aging affluent persons who may have tossed back too many toddies over the years.

Longford said: "This is something that Dallas has not embraced ever. We know the whole world is going to be watching in 2013."

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings is supposed to be putting together some sort of JFK 50th "task force." I asked him if he thinks diverse groups should have free access to Dealey Plaza. He said in an email that any events must be "solemn" and "respectful."

"Rest assured," Rawlings said, "that Dealey Plaza, in particular, will be closely monitored to assure that that space will be in keeping with the above tone and message."

I believe I am going to take that, perhaps unfairly, as a no to my question about free public access. Rawlings doesn't come across as a commissar, either, but somewhere in this is some kind of very concerted push. Perhaps it is from the Commissar of Too Many Toddies — the one whose face we cannot see.

The words "solemn" and "respectful" do seem to crop up. In the recent Morning News story, Longford was quoted saying any event should be both solemn and respectful and should "put his death into context without reliving the details of what happened."

Yeah, but here's the problem. The context for Kennedy's death in Dallas was a violent public assassination. If he had come to Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963, and died of a massive coronary, no one would remember that he died at Dealey Plaza. Or in Dallas.

They blew the top off his head and splattered his wife with brains and blood. That's the context, along with an enduring mystery and a great deal of honest skepticism in many people's minds about who did what and why. Saying that we should just be quiet and have a nice dignified event to make the city look good is not the sort of thing any historian would say, ever.

History simply is debate. No one knows what happened five minutes ago. All we can do is debate what happened. That's what history is for.

When I first wrote about this issue in the spring of 2011, I talked to Conover Hunt, one of the consultants who helped design The Sixth Floor before its opening in 1989. Hunt, who is in Virginia now, is a real historian and authority on historic places. Hunt gets what these places are for.

"Dealey Plaza doesn't really belong to Dallas," she told me. "It belongs to everyone. And not necessarily just the American people.