If you scan the crowd while watching coverage of today’s official Dealey Plaza ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, you may make out a few of the above T-shirts. The logo—depicting a Kennedy half-dollar coin with a bloody bullet hole through the head—is that of the Coalition on Political Assassinations. The group plans to be represented among the ticketed crowd at Dallas’ noon ceremony, which will feature a speech by historian David McCullough, a performance by the Navy Choir, and a 12:30 p.m. moment of silence.
The members who do show up wearing these T-shirts will be allowed in as part of a deal they struck with the city of Dallas following a monthslong dispute over the conspiracy theory group’s ability to participate in the day’s events. COPA initially wanted to hold its own traditional Dealey Plaza moment of silence at 12:30 p.m., but Dallas officials—seeking to make the city’s marking of the occasion as solemn and dignified as possible—had refused to grant the group and other conspiracy theorists permits to hold their own events on Dealey Plaza, or anywhere else in the city.
Last week, though, the two sides struck a bargain that granted COPA a permit to hold its commemoration a block away from the official festivities, to leaflet the area prior to the event, to attend the event (with tickets) wearing their JFK-head-wound-coin T-shirts, and to have access to the public square at 2:30 p.m. to hold their own moment of silence on the plaza. If these sound like basic First Amendment rights rather than concessions, then you probably agree with the conspiracy theorists on this one.
“It was basically a free-speech lockout in the whole city, but we’ve gotten that back,” says COPA director John Judge. “We would like to be where we were for the last 49 years [marking the occasion with a moment of silence on Dealey Plaza]. Half of my members wanted to go to court, and half wanted to take the mayor’s offer.”
They took the mayor’s offer, and the group will now host two moments of silence, one at a nearby parking lot at 12:30 p.m. and another after they’ve been allowed back into the plaza by a police escort.
The deal seems like a win-win for the city, which was hoping to prevent potentially distracting protests or lawsuits, and for the conspiracists, who can now hold their own program without being seen as a distraction.
In the past, unofficial anniversary activities have at times descended into what Judge called a “circus atmosphere.” Last year Texas Monthly’s Mimi Swartz wrote a wonderful definitive account of the city’s 50th-anniversary preparations and the dispute between city organizers and the JFK conspiracy theorists. Swartz described some of the historical incidences of Dealey Plaza events turning into a punchline, including the time a local provocateur drove through the square in a convertible escorting Jack and Jackie dummies and simulating the assassination with fake blood and an exploding mannequin head. Judge himself remembered occasions when JFK and Jackie figures popped out of a casket, Elvis impersonators showed up, and even one time when he says Larry Flynt drove by the plaza in a limousine with a bloody rag on his head.
“That’s not what we’re about, we’re trying to ask serious questions,” Judge told me.
Friday’s COPA commemorations are part of a three-day-long conference for the group. I know pretty much nothing about the history of the JFK assassination and the accompanying conspiracy theories (I very much trust my colleague Fred Kaplan here), but the conference panel names are pretty interesting from a voyeuristic perspective, as are some of the speakers. Talks include “Jack Ruby’s Ties to the Tropicana and Gangsterismo in Cuba,” “Working Towards the Mexico City Solution,” “The Denton Connection: An Update,” and “The Murder of Officer J. D. Tippit.”
If none of those pique your interest, the event also has star power! Richard Belzer, more popularly known as Detective John Munch, is holding a talk called “Hit List: Mysterious Deaths of Witnesses to the JFK Assassination” and former Democratic Rep.-turned-conspiracist extraordinaire Cynthia McKinney is doing one simply called “COINTELPRO.”
If any of this strikes your fancy, the conference is streaming live for the next three days on COPA’s official web site.