With the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination coming in November, the city of Dallas and many of its cultural organizations are preparing ways to mark the tragic events of that day. But KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports two Englishmen in Dallas are re-visiting what didn’t happen that day.
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It’s known as the ‘Unspoken Speech.’ John F. Kennedy was shot to death on his way to speak at the Dallas Trade Mart. Stanley Marcus, the longtime chairman of Nieman-Marcus, was an ardent supporter of the president — at a time when the Dallas establishment was strongly opposed to the Kennedy administration. A month after the shooting, Marcus had Kennedy’s speech printed as The Unspoken Speech of John F. Kennedy. He hired master book designer Carl Hertzog of El Paso to create a limited edition booklet. It’s simple, elegant and it’s hand-set — which caught the eye of Peter Wood. This was long before Wood moved to Dallas in 2007 to be a creative director for an ad agency: “I studied typography for four years,” Wood says. “And this particular piece has a lot of craft and love and care.”
“It’s a tribute, really, to the president,” says Cliff Simms. Music producer Simms is Wood’s partner in their company, Resident Alien. Wood intrigued Sims with his idea for a different sort of tribute. When Wood considered how Dallas might mark the assassination this year, he was struck by young people he spoke to who didn’t know much. Older Dallasites were reluctant even to talk about it.
“I always remember this one gentlemen looking down at his feet and shuffling,” recalls Wood. The gentleman said, “It was an embarrassment to the city of Dallas.”
Wood’s idea for a tribute would avoid the conspiracy theories. It also sidesteps the city-controlled commemoration in Dealey Plaza Nov. 22. Instead, it would, simply, complete Kennedy’s purpose in Dallas. Wood (left) wanted to deliver the Unspoken Speech — but on video, with ordinary people on camera, holding up individual words or even singing them. Even before the assassination occurred — as Dallas 1963, the soon-to-be-released book by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis, makes painfully clear — Dallas had earned its infamous “City of Hate” label. It was home to some of the most strident and angry voices of the time, vocal opponents of Kennedy — from Ted Dealey, the publisher of The Dallas Morning News, to billionaire H. L. Hunt and General Edwin Walker, who had advocated outright rebellion when James Meredith desegregated the University of Mississippi.
Yet as photos and newsreels from 1963 show, thousands of ordinary Dallasites — despite the city establishment — cheered and swarmed the Kennedy motorcade. They had done the same thing on Kennedy”s first visit in 1960. “And what’s really startling,” Wood says, “if you look at those crowds, they are African-American, Hispanic, white, and they are actually reaching out to him.”
But Simms realized that Kennedy’s speech is more than 2,500 words long. It would take 40 minutes to deliver. And much of it isn’t that compelling. Kennedy was defending his record against his critics in Texas who accused him of selling the country out to the Soviets. So he talks at length about all the new Polaris submarines and Minuteman missiles the U.S. has purchased.
“But it became apparent to me,” says Simms (below), “that there were particular paragraphs that, if you read them in their own context, were very powerful statements.”
The two men found seven such paragraphs. Kennedy articulates some of his basic ideals about how peace and freedom cannot be based on nuclear weapons, how America’s status in the world is tied, not to economic or military might, but to practicing at home the equal rights and social justice we preach abroad.
And all seven paragraphs add up to only 331 words.
Last November, Wood and Simms took one paragraph — appropriately, the one that begins, “Above all, words alone are not enough.” They started in Deep Ellum and moved through downtown, photographing and videotaping people holding placards. After editing it, they launched their website in January — with their single, completed, black-and-white video (top) and their plans for the rest. Pretty ambitious plans, involving things like crowd-sourcing images from Dallasites and turning them into a collage online in the shape of JFK’s head. A lot of that has been sidelined for something more realistic: just getting the seven excerpted paragraphs done.
Still, they got national attention online.
Nicola Longford is executive director of the Sixth Floor Museum, which has been helping Wood and Sims. She thought “the first video was brilliant. I loved the whole idea of signs being held up by a very diverse representation of the Dallas community. And it was just beautiful.”
Simms and Wood have been doing all this on their own, with only volunteer help from colleagues. When they explain the full project to many volunteers, Wood says, “You can see them take a half-step back.” Even so, both men have started work on the second and third excerpts (see below). One will be a music video with a song by the Dallas band, The Bright. The other will feature Clarence Broadnax, the civil rights protester in Dallas. In 1964, he was captured in a famous Dallas Sheriff”s Department photo, standing outside the Piccadilly Cafeteria, which he was trying to integrate. He’s holding up a hand-lettered sign that asks, “Did JFK die in vain?”
And Wood and Simms are also working out the videos’ eventual destiny – possibly in film festivals or with the Sixth Floor.
For these two Englishman, this immersion in a violent scar in Dallas history has been eye-opening, even moving: “Our attitude to the project has completely changed,” says Wood. “Meeting people like Clarence, meeting people who have some sense of being there as children. People of both persuasions politically seem to melt and suddenly this president resonates in the heart of people who never even met him.”