On November 22, 2023, the nation will mark the 60th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. For those who remember the date, it is hard to believe that so much time has passed. It is even harder to believe that there are generations of Americans who have no concept of the grassy knoll, Dealey Plaza or the Texas Book Depository. They are clueless when you mention the names Lee Harvey Oswald or Jack Ruby — names and places that were forever etched into the collective memories of my generation.
It seems like yesterday that I was a first-year student at Bowling Green State University when I heard the news that the president had been killed. In many ways the events of that day and the days that followed changed my life.
Since that day I have read more books than I can count about President Kennedy, his administration, his family and of course the assassination. I have made numerous trips to Arlington National Cemetery, including the week after the president’s death. I have been to Dallas several times, including on the 50th anniversary. And of course, I visited the Sixth Floor Museum which overlooks Dealey Plaza and memorializes the events of November 1963.
The day of the assassination, I started collecting newspapers and magazines. In more recent years, I frequent house sales, thrift stores and antique shops looking for long lost treasures. As a result, I have a house and attic full of JFK memorabilia — statues, busts, books, commemorative plates, cups and tapestries that will probably be sold at a house sale for a dollar or go into a dumpster when I die.
When I became a judge of the Cleveland Municipal Court, I made friends with Common Pleas Court Judge Burt W. Griffin, who served as an attorney for the Warren Commission. On frequent shared rides to the Justice Center, I often picked his brain. For the last 15 years or so I’ve become his unofficial research assistant, tracking down obscure facts and books as he worked on his recently published book, which I reviewed last month.
Along with Judge Griffin, Cleveland attorney and documentary film maker Todd Kwait, who produced The Truth Is Our Only Client — a documentary about the Warren Commission — and Common Pleas Court Judge Brendan Sheehan, we have given seminars for lawyers on the legal issues that would have arisen had Oswald gone to trial for killing the president; traveled around the country tracking down witnesses; and given presentations at libraries and community centers. Before the pandemic we had an informal roundtable of attorneys and court personnel at the Justice Center who got together monthly to debate various aspects of the assassination.
One unfortunate aspect of the death of President Kennedy is the many mistruths that have been propounded by conspiracy theorists that started within days of the assassination. They have burgeoned over the years. To compound the half-truths and downright falsehoods, in 1991, the movie JFK, which attacked the findings of the Warren Commission Report, was released. Producer/writer/director Oliver Stone even prepared a study guide for teachers, encouraging them to use his mythical account of the assassination as a part of American history classes.
Vincent Bugliosi, who prosecuted Charles Manson, is the author of one of the definitive books on the assassination, Reclaiming History – The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (W.W. Norton Publishing, 2007). Bugliosi devotes an entire chapter of his 1500-page tome to conspiracies and points out that since November 1963, conspiracy theorists have accused 42 groups, 82 assassins and 214 people by name of either killing the president or being implicated in the assassination. The simple fact is that the conspiracy theorists do not want to believe the findings of the Warren Commission that Lee Harvey Oswald alone killed Kennedy, firing three shots from the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository.
Historians believe that there are more than 2,500 books written on the assassination. As we mark the 60thanniversary, there are even more.
Just this last month, Paul Landis, a former Secret Service agent and Clevelander who was in Dallas guarding Jacqueline Kennedy on that fateful day published his accounts of the president’s death in The Final Witness — A Kennedy Secret Service Agent Breaks His Silence After 60 Years (Chicago Press, 2023). After 60 years of silence, Landis now purports that he found a bullet on the back seat of the president’s limo; put it in his pocket and later placed it on the gurney with the president’s body. Didn’t it occur to him that as a law enforcement officer he had found a valuable piece of evidence and maybe it should have been turned over to his superior or someone in charge? Frankly, his conduct seems tantamount to tampering with evidence.
The problem with his story is that his sudden recall of these so-called new facts flies in the face of the previous statements that he gave to the Secret Service at the time of the assassination and his subsequent interviews in which he mentions finding some bullet fragments. He had never previously mentioned a bullet.
He had a chance to disclose the bullet when he testified before the House Select Committee in 1976 and in 2016 when he gave a 93-minute oral history to the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas Texas, not to mention statements he made to other authors and newspaper reporters over the years. In his book, he discusses events following the assassination. Twenty-three times he says either “I don’t recall” or “I don’t remember.” So why should anyone believe him now?
Landis appears to be one of many people who have some nexus to the assassination and now 60 years later sees an opportunity to have ten minutes of fame and collect proceeds from a book contract.
As the nation looks back on the death of President Kennedy, many want to reflect on what might have been. Would Kennedy have pursued the war in Vietnam? Would Kennedy have been able to pass the Civil Rights Bill, that President Lyndon Johnson was artfully able to get through congress? These are all questions that have no answers.
But the important thing to remember is that an insignificant man with a rifle changed history. He ordered the rifle he used to kill Kennedy, a 6.5 mm Mannlicher Carcano, through the mail using a fake identification card. He paid $29.95 — about $300 in today’s money. Sadly, thanks to the National Rifle Association and Second Amendment advocates, it is almost as easy today as it was for Oswald in 1963 to obtain a weapon. In 60 years, many things have changed but many things remain the same. As is clear when we look at the many mass shootings with automatic weapons and deaths from handguns, a person with a gun can change history – just like Oswald.
C. Ellen Connally is a retired judge of the Cleveland Municipal Court. From 2010 to 2014 she served as the President of the Cuyahoga County Council. An avid reader and student of American history, she is a former member of the Board of the Ohio History Connection, and past president of the Cleveland Civil War Round Table, and is currently vice president of the Cuyahoga County Soldiers and Sailors Monument Commission. She holds degrees from BGSU, CSU and is all but dissertation for a PhD from the University of Akron.