As the 56th anniversary of JFK’s death nears, some wonder if learning the whole truth matters anymore. It does.
This essay has been rewritten from the introduction of Death of the Rising Sun: A Search for Truth in the John F. Kennedy Assassination by Kevin Shay.
One of my first boyhood visions features a casket draped with an
American flag on a cart pulled by horses.
Uniformed soldiers ride the horses and walk next to the casket. I’m four
years old, wondering what has happened to cause this scene, where so many adults wear somber faces. The crowd of some 300,000 overwhelms me, stifles me. Hooves clack against the pavement. Drums beat in the distance. I’m bundled up but not really feeling the cold. The sun is shining, but it could have been raining for all I knew.
I don’t remember the scene in color; it’s etched in my mind as a black-
and-white scene, part of a horror movie that fades to gray as the caisson pulls away, heading to Arlington Cemetery. Sometimes I’m not sure I was even in Washington, D.C., on that cold November day, though my parents said we were.
I don’t know if it’s a dream, a nightmare, reality, or a combination. Somehow I sense something is not right; it seems I am witnessing not a parade, but a charade.
Sometimes I think I have been haunted by this scene for my entire life. There are times when I’m sitting alone, reliving some memory, and a clip from John F. Kennedy’s funeral flashes in my mind for an instant, disturbing my recollections.
Like many, I began to lose my innocence the day JFK died. That day robbed many of us of a good part of our youth. The late great Texas journalist Molly Ivins noted that after JFK was killed, “everything went to hell. It all turned into manure.”
Many of all political stripes agree. “The whole country changed,” said Bobby Hargis, a Dallas Police motorcycle officer who was splattered with Kennedy’s blood as he rode next to the president’s limousine. Before that day, “we believed that everything was going to be fine, even if things didn’t go right. But now, you can’t believe that.”
Emmy Award-winning journalist Jeff Greenfield added, “To understand that this supremely confident, self-assured man could be slaughtered in broad daylight…. was to understand the fragility of life, the powerful forces lurking just under the surface of life. What our parents learned in a war, or in a struggle for survival, we learned that November. No one was safe; if not John Kennedy, then definitely not any of us.”
Greenfield noted the vast increase in mistrust of government and other institutions by Americans since that day. In 1964, some 77 percent trusted the U.S. government to do the right thing at least most of the time, according to a national survey. By 1974, that percentage fell to 36 percent, though it increased some after the 2001 terrorist attacks before further dropping to 17 percent in 2019. Trust in banks, churches, the media, and other institutions saw similar declines.
There was good reason for such mistrust after the 2007 Wall Street
scandals and recession, along with other transgressions, Greenfield pointed out. Another factor was the more public environment in the Internet Age, where the failures of such institutions were more widely and immediately known. “The failures, strategic and moral, in places like Iraq, are on full display. The private lives of politicians, once carefully concealed, are now matters of public speculation,” Greenfield said. “How does a nation thrive when, year after year, our motto is, ‘In nothing we trust’?”
Beginning a quest
A little more than a year after JFK’s assassination, I lost more of my
youth as my older sister died. Believed to be one of thousands of victims of Reye’s syndrome — a tragedy fueled by still more institutional lies and cover-ups — Sharon was buried not far from JFK in Arlington Cemetery. Regular visits to that cemetery opened up double wounds.
Somehow, my family ended up in Dallas. I gravitated to journalism, and a chance encounter with an eyewitness to Kennedy’s killing mobilized me,
sending me on a journey down questionable roads and back alleys that has yet to end. In early 1978, I happened to be the only person present in the cramped office of the Richland Mandala, home of Richland College’s student newspaper, when JFK killing eyewitness Bill Newman entered. It was during the midst of the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations’ investigation into the Kennedy assassination. Newman, an electrical contractor who attended college at night, was standing on Elm Street with his wife and two young sons no more than 15 feet from Kennedy when he was shot.
“I caught a glimpse of the president’s eyes after he was shot the first time, and it was like a cold stare, like he was staring right through me,” said
Newman, who later became a city council member in the Dallas suburb of Mesquite. “It was then that the final shot seemed to hit his ear and take it right off.” He testified in the 1969 Jim Garrison trial that the fatal shot was “kind of hard to see. It looked like a big explosion.”
Newman thought the shots came from over his head in back of the grassy knoll, though he later said it was hard to tell. He told his wife and kids to get down on the ground, and there is a well-known photo of the couple covering their sons. He was interviewed by the national media, FBI, and Dallas sheriff’s office, but the Warren Commission did not call.
Though at the time I was more concerned with basketball and baseball games than crime-of-the-century investigations, Newman’s chance visit spurred me to start reading JFK assassination books, attending meetings and conferences, and interviewing witnesses. The CIA, Mafia, high-level defense officials, oilmen, right-wing businessmen, Fidel Castro, the Soviets, anti-integration racists, Jimmy Hoffa, LBJ, and J. Edgar Hoover all became suspects.
Perhaps some of my interest was aided by sharing the same birthday as Kennedy. I wrote stories for my college papers and others. I didn’t learn who
really killed Kennedy, but as I delved into the question, it almost became lost in a maze of even larger mysteries about the halls of government and semi-secret institutions. As much as I was convinced that the Warren Commission and several subsequent panels did not get to the bottom of this mess, I began to understand why they didn’t. And that intrigued me all the more.
As a mostly sports reporter for the Park Cities News, a conservative
weekly that covered the high-society Dallas burbs of University Park and
Highland Park — which have housed the likes of former President George W. Bush, ex-VP Dick Cheney, and former Texas Gov. Bill Clements — I attended a ceremony in 1983 organized by the local Democratic Party to commemorate the 20th anniversary of JFK’s assassination.
The event didn’t give insight into who killed JFK, but officials such as former U.S. Sen. Ralph Yarborough spoke about what Kennedy was like and how his assassination changed the country. People did not blame Washington, D.C., for the death of Abraham Lincoln so it was unfair to blame Dallas for Kennedy’s death, said Yarborough, who rode in the 1963 motorcade with Kennedy.
I later read a harrowing account by Yarborough of what it was like to be in that procession. He recalled the contrast between the reactions to Kennedy
from people lining the street and the mostly businessmen who stood above them inside office buildings. The people outside were smiling and cheering, but most business types in the offices — who included right-wing extremist and oil billionaire H.L. Hunt — were staring in silence “with positive hate,” Yarborough noted.
I spent most of my weekly column, which was usually buried in the sports pages among high school football and basketball results, detailing that event, including comments by Yarborough and others. My editor later met with me to say, “Stick to sports.” I argued that sports were inseparable from life, that sometimes even sports fans could not ignore the larger events that affected us all. He said it wasn’t up to him, but the paper’s owners and investors didn’t like my meanderings. “Some of them could have been in on the conspiracy, for all I know,” he noted.
I steered clear of mentioning Kennedy in future columns but continued to cover other things besides sports. I increased my activism with the Dallas
advocacy paper Hard Times News and embarked on a long walk project across the U.S. and Europe to Russia as a statement to end the Cold War. Through that, I met more people convinced that the full truth about JFK’s death had not been revealed, especially those in Europe.
In 1988, I attended a few meetings of the Dealey Plaza Irregulars, a group that evolved from a conspiracy theory course taught by the late journalist Jim Marrs at the University of Texas at Arlington. I met witnesses such as Esther Ann Mash, a waitress at Jack Ruby’s Downtown Dallas Carousel Club who claimed she witnessed Lee Harvey Oswald meeting with Ruby and others in that club shortly before the assassination.
Mary Ferrell, an executive legal secretary who had amassed some 25,000 pages of FBI documents by 1988 in her Oak Lawn home, was another who I profiled. Prominent journalist Jack Anderson had used her files. Garrison had called her. Her husband, H.A. Ferrell, had provided the Lincoln Continentals that rode in the presidential procession, while her station wagon carried some reporters.
In 1989, I covered the opening of The Sixth Floor Museum in the former Texas School Book Depository building, from where Oswald supposedly shot at the motorcade. I asked then-project director Conover Hunt why there was so little emphasis on conspiracy theories. “We are not here to solve this crime,” said Hunt, who was not related to H.L. Hunt.
That statement struck me as odd. Shouldn’t a museum that promotes this crime of the century be at least mildly interested in all aspects of the case? It had been a struggle just to preserve that building, which was renamed the Dallas County Administration Building in 1981. Many civic leaders, including influential billionaire Ross Perot and former Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry, called for its destruction. The structure survived arson attempts in 1972 and 1984. Preservation efforts received a boost when archaeologists unearthed Native American artifacts just outside the building. Admission prices at the $3.5 million museum, which included a reconstructed sniper’s perch and the original stairway sign, rose from $4 in 1989 to $18 in 2019.
Gary Shaw and Larry Howard opened the JFK Assassination Information Center in downtown Dallas soon after The Sixth Floor Museum to focus more on conspiracy theories. The center, among other duties, printed an informative brochure outlining problems with the official story, such as there were more bullet fragments in former Gov. John Connally Jr.’s body than were missing from the bullet that the Warren Commission claimed caused his wounds. In addition, the CIA turned over a file on Oswald to congressional investigators that was empty as the military destroyed its Oswald file, according to the center.
In 1991, I viewed a premier of Oliver Stone’s JFK film, attended by Stone and others. In my review for The Addison/North Dallas Register, I was among the minority in the mainstream media to recommend the movie. In later years, I continued to write about aspects of the assassination. I joined and consulted with other researchers, such as SMU linguistic anthropology professor Bill Pulte. When Beverly Oliver released Nightmare in Dallas in 1994, I wrote a lengthy feature on her for the Arlington News. I did more stories for The Dallas Morning News and other newspapers I joined. A 1999 book on Dallas political history I co-authored with civil rights advocate Roy Williams called And Justice for All included considerable information on the assassination. A comprehensive story on Kennedy’s autopsy for The Washington Post’s Gazette in 2013 won a Best in Show feature writing award from the Maryland-D.C.-Delaware Press Association.
While I haven’t been as dogged in pursuing the truth behind the JFK assassination as Garrison, Marrs, Penn Jones Jr., Earl Golz, David Talbot, and some others, it remains the most important and defining story I have chased in my four-decade journalism career. It haunts me today as much as it did in 1978. It’s more than a detective story with high-level political stakes.
To truly study the Kennedy assassination and pursue the truth, you have to
suspend belief about everything you have been taught about this country, international politics, and who the good guys and bad guys are. You have to risk your career, reputation, and sometimes even life. You have to shuck off the laughter and “tin foil” comments, ignore the threats. You have to walk down a slippery slope. You have to take up a missionary’s cause without thought of monetary reward, fame, or even redemption. You have to trust no one, not even yourself.
No matter what you thought of JFK, his death profoundly changed America and the world. A 1999 survey of American historians and journalists ranked the JFK assassination as the sixth biggest story of the 20th century. JFK is one of the few former presidents to be remembered more on the anniversary of his death than his birth. Ronald Reagan’s library celebrates his birthday each February. Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on Feb. 12 is a national holiday. The anniversary of his death, April 15, is remembered more for the tax deadline, even though Lincoln’s assassination was another controversial one that still raises some questions. However, in Lincoln’s case, there is no question that John Booth had co-conspirators since eight of them were tried and convicted. That helped allow mourners to move on from Lincoln’s death to celebrate more of what he did in his life on the anniversary of his birthday.
James Garfield and William McKinley were also assassinated while president. Does anyone remember the anniversary of the day they died, without looking it up?
There are good reasons why Kennedy continues to be remembered more on the day he died than when he was born, namely that it is the most recent presidential assassination and most Americans still don’t believe the U.S. government version that blames one man. Some 61 percent of Americans in a 2013 Gallup poll believed Kennedy was killed as the result of a conspiracy. That same number still believed more than one person was involved in another 2017 survey. To many, JFK’s murder remains largely unsolved, and most conspirators have yet to be held officially responsible for their roles in this earth-shaking crime.
E. Martin Schotz wrote in a 1996 book, History Will Not Absolve Us, that most people may believe there was a conspiracy but are “convinced that they can never know for sure what happened.” The questions of who killed Kennedy and why, Schotz wrote, are not mysterious to “any citizen who is willing to look.” He is certain that JFK’s assassination was “organized at the highest levels of the CIA.” That may seem as presumptuous and egotistical as Gerald Posner writing a book supporting the lone-assassin theory called Case Closed. How can you be 100 percent certain of anything in this mystery? How do you know those government documents you cited weren’t doctored or fabricated in the first place?
The easy answer is you don’t. At some point, you have to believe something. But when there are 20 witnesses who say a shot came from behind the grassy knoll and 20 others saying no, it came from behind the presidential limousine, who do you believe? Who is credible and who is not? Those are difficult questions. Norman Mailer wrote in Oswald’s Tale that he was 75 percent sure Oswald committed the crime of the 20th century alone. So, he left the door one-quarter open to a conspiracy. And that was published in 1995; since then, many more eye-opening documents have been released, detailed in compelling arguments by Talbot, Lamar Waldron, and James Douglass, among others. Even Mailer, as a mostly lone- assassin supporter, painstakingly pointed out that Oswald was no idiotic lone nut as the Warren Commission claimed, but an intelligent, articulate young man who believed in action, made many acquaintances, and had at least cursory ties to the CIA, military intelligence, FBI, KGB, and Mafia.
For me, I am more than 90 percent certain that there was a conspiracy to kill JFK. In that vein, Oswald could have been an actual conspirator, patsy or government-hired asset who attempted to monitor and even stop the plots. I leave the door less than one-tenth open that the lone-assassin theory is correct. That’s not much. But I have lived long enough to know that nothing is certain, not even death [life could continue after physical death], taxes [see Donald Trump’s decades-long nonpayment of income taxes], and unending debate about such mysteries [eventually, mysteries get solved or they become so dated few care anymore to discuss them].
Some of the more hard-to-refute pieces of this puzzle that lean me so heavily in the conspiracy direction include:
- The more than a dozen people who saw Ruby and Oswald together in the months before Kennedy’s death. The likelihood that all of these people are lying or mistaken is small. And if they saw someone who looked like Oswald, they were not alone. That adds to suspicions that there was a double, a standard part of CIA diversion operations.
- The testimony of Gordon Arnold. The uniformed soldier had just returned from basic training and set up a movie camera on the grassy knoll. He felt a bullet pass mere inches over his left shoulder as he stood about three feet from the grassy knoll fence. He hit the ground and felt a second shot pass over. Then someone kicked him and took his film. As a soldier, he knew more than most when a bullet passed over him or not.
- The testimony of Deputy Sheriff Roger Craig. He saw a man who looked like Oswald run from the TSBD right after the shooting and get in a Rambler station wagon driven by a dark-skinned man. He later identified the man running as Oswald.
- The powerful story of Secret Service agent Abraham Bolden and the
Chicago plot just three weeks before Kennedy died.
- The multiple attempts on Kennedy’s life in late 1962 and 1963 in
Florida. Klansman extremist Joseph Milteer admitted on tape to associate Willie Somersett that there was a plot to kill Kennedy and even named Klan leader Jack Brown as someone who could carry out the killing. Brown had also stalked Martin Luther King Jr., Milteer said.
- The ease with which Oswald returned from the Soviet Union to the U.S. as the Cold War raged. Oswald had offered to give the Soviets secrets about a U-2 spy plane base where he worked when he defected but had little problems returning to the U.S.
- The magic-bullet theory. Posner says it was proven ballistically. It’s just hard to buy.
- The admissions that autopsy doctors destroyed evidence under military officials’ orders.
- The admission by Hoover that a photo that CIA officials said was Oswald in Mexico City appeared to be someone else, perhaps someone posing as Oswald.
Most lone-assassin supporters — particularly the ones who refrain from insulting conspiracy theorists by calling them kooks and worse — bring up some good points. Those include:
- Oswald did have a rifle at the home where his wife stayed, and he took
something to work on Nov. 22, 1963, in a long brown bag.
- Several other witnesses, including trained newsmen, saw a rifle
pointed at the motorcade from an upper floor window of the TSBD.
- Oswald left the TSBD, rather than stay as other employees did. If he
really had nothing to do with the assassination, he would have remained pat.
- Oswald likely did take a potshot at Gen. Edwin Walker.
- Oswald’s suspicious behavior in the Texas Theatre.
My account details research gleaned from classified and unclassified government documents, official reports, studies, interviews, meetings, books, and articles. I don’t claim to be an expert on anything related to the killing; I am more of a student. I heavily document sources, using footnotes that are at the end of the book in the appendix.
In this work, I give light to some associations between Ruby, Oswald, organized crime, right-wing businessmen, Cubans, and intelligence figures unearthed by fellow researchers such as Pulte that have not received the attention they deserve. I highlight some documents that I haven’t seen in other books. Those include an FBI report that noted that an active Marine intelligence officer at the Naval Air Station in a Dallas suburb talked a few weeks before the assassination about how an attempt on Kennedy’s life would be easy if the assassin “ordered a mail-order rifle.” The latter was a specific detail that authorities attributed to Oswald.
I also show how Dallas, despite having a Texan on the ticket, displayed the strongest anti-Kennedy sentiment in the 1960 election of any large city in the country — even stronger than smaller anti-integration bastions like Birmingham, Ala. Dallas probably deserved the title of the “U.S. Capital of Hate” in 1963, though the city has changed immensely since then.
While I lean fairly heavily towards the conspiracy side, I try not to ignore the contributions of the lone-assassin crowd. For us to truly learn the truth of this crime, it will take cooperation from all sides, even if we are rivals at times. Of course, I can understand the wariness of someone like Garrison, who faced death threats, prosecution, infiltration, dirty tricks, media hype, and more in the late 1960s as he courageously pursued the only criminal case in this controversy that has tried someone for conspiracy in court. You don’t just easily let go of the level of harassment Garrison experienced.
It doesn’t help that JFK government documents continue to be withheld. There have been a few interesting tidbits in what has been released, such as Oswald being known by at least a dozen CIA officials, according to researcher and journalist Jefferson Morley.
Metaphorically and literally, a rising sun died in America and the world on Nov. 22, 1963. Some say that we have never again seen such a rising sun as we did that morning. Even if it was cloudy or raining that day, the country and world were more innocent and optimistic at that moment than they have been since then. Some say that a piece of all of us — the hope that helps us get through another day — died that day. Others say the act just opened the eyes of many about what the U.S. government and other governments have done in our names for a long time.
How do we regain the hope and optimism many felt before the bullets
struck down JFK? Can we? Tough questions. All I know is we can’t begin to glimpse that kind of rising sun again without being honest about what happened that day. If we can someday fully acknowledge the horrors behind the events of that day, then we can begin on that long road back to redemption.
Kevin Shay is author of Death of the Rising Sun: A Search for Truth in the John F. Kennedy Assassination, which is available as an updated Kindle ebook for 99 cents through Nov. 23 and $3.99 after that date.