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  • Assassination and Commemoration: JFK, Dallas, and the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza by Stephen Fagin
  • Sarah Dziedzic
Assassination and Commemoration: JFK, Dallas, and the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. By Stephen Fagin. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013. 238 pp. Hardbound, $29.95.

For those of us whose careers are dedicated to preserving memory and documenting experience, creating a permanent public space at a site so integrally connected to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy would appear an unquestionable path. For the residents of Dallas, Texas, however, where JFK was fatally shot on November 22, 1963, the path was much more complicated. Stephen Fagin’s Assassination and Commemoration provides a detailed and well-researched account of the decades-long debate in Dallas over whether to remember, or strive to forget, this violent event.

Fagin begins his book by recounting the years leading up to JFK’s arrival in Dallas in 1963, describing the local political scene as one fraught with bitter disputes that led to Dallas’s national reputation as a city hostile to Democrats. [End Page 367] He then moves on to describe the day of the assassination and the police investigation that followed, including Dallas resident Jack Ruby’s murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, the president’s accused assassin, while Oswald was in police custody. In newspapers across the country, journalists slandered the citizens of Dallas and blamed city officials for providing inadequate security of the president and his accused assassin; even residents of Dallas made allegations of incompetency and expressed shame on behalf of their own police department and the city as a whole. Fagin uses his narration of this often-told series of events to illustrate how Dallas’s reputation continued to worsen in the aftermath of all that happened, foreshadowing some of the complications that would arise in the debates over the memorialization of JFK’s death in the following decades.

The citizens of Dallas were not unaffected by what happened; soon after JFK’s death, many residents expressed their grief in very public ways, including an impromptu assemblage of flowers in Dealey Plaza and, eventually, an official memorial that architect Philip Johnson designed (and subsequently completed in 1970). Johnson, as well as the many residents of Dallas who supported the construction, insisted that the memorial express a sense of openness and light, a nod to the uncontainable spirit of JFK. Despite these intentions, though, the actual memorial—a large and mostly enclosed box—felt like and resembled a tomb, and an uninviting one at that. As Fagin writes, citing social psychologist James Pennebaker, “the ‘cold, white box’ of Philip Johnson’s memorial cenotaph suggested … that the community wanted to keep its dark secret locked away. In Dealey Plaza … was an ‘invisible sign … that said ‘Nothing happened here.”” (111). The president’s death, however, required a deep and honest recognition among the residents of Dallas that the event did occur here; anything that did not confront that fact full-on would have been, as Fagin argues, a futile attempt to ignore collectively one of the most memorable events of the century.

The remembrance of JFK’s death could not be abstracted from the physical place where he was killed—JFK did not die in Dallas generally; he was assassinated in Dealey Plaza specifically. The Texas School Book Depository, the building from which Oswald shot the president, thus immediately became an eerie and unfavorable presence in the city: the site provided an unwanted yet constant reminder of the shooting. And it is this site, the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository, and the attempts to turn it into a memorial, that are the focus of Fagin’s book.

In his account of the debate over the future and potential use of the building—over the unique yet beneficial approach to commemorating a violent event such as this—Fagin also provides an important model of study, one for citizens and professionals involved in preserving and memorializing sites of violence. While the details are specific to the numerous stakeholders in Dallas, [End Page 368] particularly the advocates for what would become The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, the concerns Fagin outlines...