"I always tell people I'm not a bookworm. I'm a book anaconda," John Judge says, as he turns sideways and carefully maneuvers his large frame down a narrow staircase into the main library of the Coalition on Political Assassinations, a nonprofit dedicated to researching the killings of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. Carved deep into a hill in Penn Branch, a quiet, leafy community in Southeast Washington, the room might otherwise be a basement, were the house not inhabited by a man who for the past 45 years has been obsessively reading and researching every facet of the Kennedy assassination.
He scans through hundreds of books, carefully pulling from the shelves some of the foundational texts of the assassination canon: Mark Lane's best-selling Rush to Judgment, the first book he ever read on the case, and Robert Groden and Harrison Edward Livingstone's High Treason: The Assassination of JFK & the Case for Conspiracy. Judge gestures to 26 hardcover volumes of the Warren Commission report, the official government investigation that fingered Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone gunman. On a shelf beside him sits a self-satirical bumper sticker: "Humpty Dumpty was pushed." Judge, who has wavy silver-white hair and a goatee that fans out beneath his chin, smirks, "I tell people you can call me a conspiracy theorist if you call everyone else a coincidence theorist."
He pauses and picks a collector's item from the stacks: one of the now out-of-print volumes of Penn Jones Jr.'s tome about a conspiracy to kill the president, Forgive My Grief. Jones was a Texas newspaperman and one of the original JFK assassination researchers. One year after the assassination, he came to the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza, where some witnesses say they heard shots fired that day, to hold a moment of silence. Judge joined him in 1968 and continued the tradition every year, taking over the ceremonies when Jones grew ill.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination. By the admission of most of the assassination researchers (they hate the term "conspiracy theorists"), it's also their last, best shot at reigniting a public debate about what really happened that day. "The 50th anniversary will really be one of the last opportunities to really get this out into the public domain," says James DiEugenio, cofounder of the Citizens for Truth About the Kennedy Assassination. "I really and truly believe that the Kennedy assassination was quite epochal; it had reverberations down to present day," he says. "What has happened over time is that cynicism and skepticism have seeped down into the public at large. It has caused a lot of serious problems about peoples' belief in government and has splintered our society."
Judge says, "We are passing into a post-historical era, and it probably is, maybe not the last gasp, but the largest last gasp of the issue." It's also the first year they won't get to be in the plaza on Nov. 22 at 12:30 p.m.
Dallas knows the world will be watching that day, and the city intends to be ready. "The international spotlight will shine intensely on our city, perhaps brighter than it has since that gut-wrenching day in 1963," Mayor Mike Rawlings said in an op-ed for The Dallas Morning News last week. So Rawlings, along with a committee of Dallas's best known Brahmins, civic leaders with deep ties to the city, have carefully planned an event they're calling "the 50th."
John F. Kennedy
They don't intend to use the word assassination. The event "is all about acknowledging the life, legacy, and leadership of the 35th president, not the moment 50 years ago," says one of the press handlers helping with the ceremony. Historian David McCullough will read from Kennedy speeches, the U.S. Naval Academy Men's Glee Club will sing, religious leaders will offer prayers. A ceremonial flyover will take place, and church bells will ring throughout the city. Around 12:30 p.m., participants will observe a moment of silence. The only thing that will be missing are some of the people who have been coming to Dealey Plaza for decades. The city offered only 5,000 tickets, to be distributed through a lottery, and asked applicants to submit to a background check—meaning that most of the assassination researchers will be shut out. "We've been doing this for 49 years, and there's no reason to usurp it," Judge says. "We could have been accommodated, but we weren't—we think, on the basis of our message."
The stakes go beyond granting the conspiracists some measure of credibility. For the city, the anniversary may be its best chance to finally put one of the most painful periods in modern American history behind it, an opportunity to show that Dallas has moved beyond the image it cultivated in the assassination era as a polestar of political extremism. To understand the fight between the researchers and the city is to understand how Dealey Plaza became a symbolic battleground for a much larger war over the legacy of Dallas and of how history remembers what happened to JFK.
THE TAINT OF HISTORY
The researchers haven't yet decided what they plan to do. One created a website called Occupy the Grassy Knoll, suggesting an act of civil disobedience to protest the curtailment of their First Amendment rights. (Judge expects 250 attendees for a conference this month in Dallas.) Brad Kizzia, an attorney who has provided counsel to Judge, says they're still considering whether to file a lawsuit. For COPA and the others, the city's actions are evidence that the Dallas old guard hasn't dealt with the wounds of its past. "If we cannot allow people to mention the assassination or what happened that day and what questions remain, if we have to go to these lengths to keep people from doing that on the 50th anniversary, then obviously we haven't confronted it, and we're not able to—at least the people who are running things have not and cannot," Kizzia says.
If Dallas is still struggling to reckon with history, the burden is not just the assassination itself but also the lingering aftermath. Pre-assassination Dallas was a hotbed of right-wing extremism, blamed for creating a culture of violence that preceded the president's death. Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy's running mate, was accosted by angry, spitting protesters on a campaign stop three years earlier. When Adlai Stevenson, then the U.N. ambassador, visited the city just a month before the assassination, a protester hit him on the head. The Dallas Morning News regularly attacked Kennedy's policies in its editorials, and its publisher, Ted Dealey (the plaza is named after his father), had sharply criticized the president at a White House meeting two years earlier. On the day Kennedy visited, the paper ran an antagonistic full-page ad, "Welcome Mr. Kennedy to Dallas," demanding to know why the administration was being soft on communism.
Jim Schutze, a columnist for the Dallas Observer who has been following the Dealey Plaza controversy for years and criticizing the city's treatment of the conspiracy theorists, recently wrote: "For the people who were kids or young adults when it happened, members of the families or the general social class that was blamed, I think the Kennedy assassination may have been a very damaging formative event in their early personal development. Now in their old age, for them Dealey Plaza has become a hated cemetery where all of their youthful demons dwell and all of them look like Robert Groden with horns."
That sensitivity is evidenced in official Dallas's unusual approach to questions from the media on this story. When National Journal contacted both the mayor's office and the Sixth Floor Museum, which initially requested the permit for the 50th anniversary event, for comment, we were directed to a public-relations firm the events committee hired to handle press, Laurey Peat + Associates. One of its employees agreed to answer questions via email, on the condition he not be quoted. "Because they did not come from any one specific person, they should be referenced as messaging points," he said in an email. "I, personally, am not a quotable source nor an official spokesperson for the event. But I do work here, as the saying goes!"
He wrote, "It's important that the city of Dallas has a strong voice in remembering this very solemn day, and that we reflect upon it with the sense of history and dignity it deserves."
The city didn't exactly ask for this. For the past 49 years, the anniversary of the assassination has come and gone in Dealey Plaza without any official attempts to have a ceremony, so the Warren Commission doubters and conspiracy theorists had free rein over the park and the corresponding media attention. On occasion, the scene did evolve into cringe-inducing spectacle: bloody Jack and Jackie mannequins, impersonators ascending from coffins, men on stilts. According to an upcoming History Channel documentary, 311 distinct conspiracy theories point blame at 42 groups, 81 assassins, and 214 people.
Deep divisions exist among the Warren Commission skeptics about what constitutes solid research and what is more like wild theorizing, and they are debated with such Talmudic furor it can be nearly impossible for outsiders to tell the difference. Jefferson Morley, a former Washington Post editor who has written extensively on the CIA's interest in Oswald before the assassination, says, "Among serious researchers, the idea of a national security plot is probably the dominant inter pretation." He looks for corroborated details and academic research that's been peer-reviewed. But other pet theories—that Vice President Johnson was involved, that George H.W. Bush was involved as a CIA operative in Dealey Plaza, that Kennedy's Secret Service detail played a role—are hotly debated among the conspiracists.
"There a lot of hucksters roaming the area coming up to tourists and selling tabloid papers and a lot of disinformation," says Barry Ernest, one of the researchers who spent 35 years working on a book about a woman, Victoria Adams, who was in the stairwell of the Texas Book Depository at the same time the government says Oswald was that day. "It's kind of a wild place to go to. What they're trying to do is eliminate that type of activity in Dealey Plaza at a time when they want to just remember President Kennedy and not argue about divergent theories as to how he died."
But the Warren Commission doubters have far more than tradition in their favor. Public-opinion polls from the mid-1960s through today show that solid majorities of the American people don't believe the government's lone-gunman theory. The previous anniversary ceremonies may have been ad hoc and informal, but they also were representative of the popular belief. What the regulars don't understand is why the city had to exclude them from planning or even attending the event.
"It's very hard, because we're going up against the city of Dallas," says Debra Conway, whose group, JFK Lancer, puts on one of the largest conferences of researchers around the anniversary of his assassination. Each year, attendees make the trek to Dealey Plaza to sing and share words of encouragement. "It's just those kind of people with prominence and money that will get the national and global attention, and people like the JFK Lancer don't. If we don't take advantage of an anniversary, particularly this one, if we can't at least say something to the people in Dealey Plaza, we'll never have a chance."
The researchers see their treatment as a curtailment of their First Amendment rights by the city of Dallas, a fight that began years ago with Robert Groden. He was a consultant to the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1976, as well as to Oliver Stone's movie JFK about New Orleans prosecutor Jim Garrison's attempt to convict Clay Shaw of a conspiracy to kill the president. In the research community, Groden is affectionately known as the Dealey Llama. For the past several years, he has gone to the grassy knoll almost every day to sell his work on the assassination. The police ticketed him more than 80 times and in 2010 arrested him for selling literature in a public space—only to have the courts throw out each citation, ruling that Groden didn't violate the law.
So, when Judge learned that the usual permit he requested and received from the city each year for the anniversary had been denied because the Sixth Floor Museum had taken out a permit for the entire week surrounding the anniversary, he was suspicious. Later, the museum withdrew its permit and the city stepped in, with Rawlings establishing a blue-ribbon panel of community philanthropists and other leaders and announcing plans to block off the space for the ceremony. Only those who won the lottery and passed a background check got tickets.
What might be the most galling insult to the likes of Conway and Judge is that the city won't acknowledge the assassination at all. In January, Rawlings met with Judge and Morley. "I tried to impress on him that you can have an event celebrating the life and legacy of JFK any time or place. I can only have my event meaningfully and effectively on November 22 on the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza," Judge says. "He said he'd get back to me, but there were months more of silence despite letters and emails."
Morley says, "My sense is that the city wants to control this thing very tightly, and they don't want anybody to talk about causes of Kennedy's death. I think that's crazy when you're commemorating Kennedy's death in the place where he was killed."
Dallas officials have offered to let them watch from a Jumbotron in a nearby park and come to Dealey Plaza a few hours after the ceremony ends. But both he and Conway say the city has stalled so much in finalizing discussions with them that there's no real way to plan their own commemoration on the grassy knoll.
"They put together a group of people who are like the city fathers and mothers—who do symphonies and ballets—and said, 'Let's just put together a beautiful program, and we don't have to talk about the assassination,' like it's just a coincidence that they're there," Conway says. "It's just the weirdest thing. It's like if you went to a funeral but no one talked about the person who was dead."
FROM 11/22 to 9/11
To explain why, after 50 years, the assassination researchers still devote their lives and reputations to what happened to JFK is to them at once obvious and unanswerable. "This is so hard to explain in a sound bite," Oliver Stone told National Journal. "It's so important because Kennedy was the last peace-seeking president we really had, and the country became much more conservative after that. The last 50 years we've gone far to the right."
Oliver Stone on JFK's Assassination
They are by now a large community, a fractious, infighting family, with founders like Harold Weisberg, a Maryland chicken farmer, and Mary Ferrell, a Dallas legal secretary who became one of the movement's most respected researchers. Belief in a conspiracy brought families together and kept them apart: Pamela McElwain-Brown met her future husband on one of the early assassination message boards; another researcher named David Lifton never married out of a self-professed recognition that he'd always be more interested in the president's dead body than a wife's living one. Some, like Stuart Wexler, inherited their interest from parents and grandparents. "This is going to sound cheesy and self-righteous," Wexler says, "but there is to me a sense of justice in setting historical record straight and maybe getting some literal procedural justice in this case; that I really think is important."
To understand why this fight matters so much to the researchers, consider their strange cultural predicament: Even though large majorities of the public agree with them, the people who after all these years devote time and effort to figuring out what really happened that day in Dealey Plaza are regarded as a little bit crazy by the anti-conspiracy writers, the media—and sometimes by each other.
A 2009 CBS poll found that 74 percent of Americans believe the government hid the truth about what happened to Kennedy; an Associated Press poll earlier this year put the number suspecting a conspiracy closer to 59 percent. But, according to the CBS poll, 77 percent of Americans believe they'll never know what really happened to the 35th president. Oliver Stone's movie reignited intense public interest in the debate and led to the passage of the JFK Records Act, which mandated the release of all government documents relating to the assassination of Kennedy by 2017. It also sparked a serious backlash against the conspiracy theorists. Case Closed, Gerald Posner's 640-page book debunking the conspiracy theories, won critical acclaim and sold more than 100,000 hardcover copies. When The New York Times reviewed Vincent Bugliosi's 1,648-page tome Reclaiming History, writer Bryan Burrough wrote, "Bugliosi is refreshing because he doesn't just pick apart the conspiracy theorists. He ridicules them, and by name.… What Bugliosi has done is a public service; these people should be ridiculed, even shunned. It's time we marginalized Kennedy conspiracy theorists the way we've marginalized smokers; next time one of your coworkers starts in about Oswald and the CIA, make him stand in the rain with the other outcasts."
It's not surprising, then, that the Warren Commission's critics feel ridiculed by the media—and treated like outcasts. "They treat us as essentially the same people who believe Elvis lives, which is utterly and completely ridiculous. There are some really, really serious problems with evidentiary case that the Warren Commission put together, but the media just ignored them," DiEugenio says. "I don't think there's any question that what this has turned into is this battle between people like myself and the mainstream media. It's a debilitating kind of obstacle."
Partly, the critics say, it's the complexity of the case. "As soon as you get to the point of knowing enough to talk about it, you start losing your credibility, which is hard to handle," says Larry Hancock, author of Someone Would Have Talked: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy and the Conspiracy to Mislead History. "I don't know if history professors face that same thing; you'd think somebody who invested 30 years on Greco-Roman history is in the same boat we're in, but nobody questions, 'Well, sir, you must be obsessive, and you're only one who wrote a book on it so, wow, you're strange.' It's a challenge."
But by the doubters' own admission, the sheer volume and range of outrageousness of some of the conspiracy theories have hurt their cause. "It pains us," Hancock says. "It's your classic 80-20 rule: 80 percent of it is really just opinion and suspicions."
That points to the biggest problem plaguing the Kennedy conspiracy theorists: the view that they are the forebears of today's more outlandish conspiracy theorists, the 9/11 obsessives and the Sandy Hook truthers, who believe that the Newtown, Conn., shooting was an elaborate government hoax. "Back in '67, '68, in my opinion, it felt honorable to be looking into things that many people believed were not right about something as historically important as the assassination of the president of the United States," Ernest says."But now, there is so much disinformation out there on this subject that it's not so honorable for a lot of people."
The assassination theorists believe that with the release of the last of the government records in 2017, they're closer than ever to figuring out what really happened to JFK. "I stuck with this because I think we're going to get that story, and it's going to be one hell of a story when we get it. So when people say, 'You're nuts,' well, a lot of people are crazy in this field, and if you study it long enough it can drive you crazy, so I am fully aware of the danger of that," says Morley, who has a website, JFKFacts.org, to help separate the more outlandish theories from what he says is the compelling research. "But I don't think I'm crazy."
This article appears in the November 9, 2013 edition of National Journal Magazine as The Battle of the Grassy Knoll.