JFK BLOWN AWAY–HOORAY!
Published in slightly different form in Flagpole Magazine, p. 7 (November 22, 2006).
Author: Donald E. Wilkes, Jr., Professor of Law, University of Georgia School of Law.
“JFK, blown away, what else do I have to say.”–Billy Joel’s song, “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
Exactly 43 years ago, on Nov. 22, 1963, 46-year old President John F.
Kennedy was assassinated at 12:30 p.m. in Dealey Plaza in downtown
Dallas was then, as Matthew Smith notes in JFK: The Second Plot (1992),
“the southwest hate capital of Dixie.... In its politics and in its
people, Dallas represented the right wing as far as it could go.”
Before and during his Dallas visit, local right-wingers busied
themselves to make JFK unwelcome. They were angry and indignant
that JFK was coming to their city. In fact, at the very time
shots were being fired at President Kennedy a right-wing protestor
stood a few feet away, heckling JFK by comparing him to Neville
When the president died, the cheering stopped and for days America was
filled with gloom and mourning. There was, however, in this
country one political group that rejoiced at the news of the
assassination. Right-wingers, the truth must be told, were
delighted by Kennedy’s death. As far as they were concerned,
Kennedy deserved to die, die, die.
During his presidency, right-wingers utterly detested President John F.
Kennedy; and the extreme right-wingers hated Kennedy with a venomous,
malignant ferocity bordering on insanity. Because he was a
liberal and pro-civil rights, right-wingers–particularly, the
segregationists and racists, the opponents of civil rights, the
states-righters, the free enterprise loonies, the wealthy
ultra-conservatives, the religious bigots, the anti-Castro Cubans, the
U.N. haters, and the lunatic fringe anti-Communists–regarded JFK as
dangerous, destructive, and downright traitorous.
For a glimpse of the seething hatred right-wingers felt for JFK,
consider the false, malicious, and inflammatory accusations Dallas
right-wingers leveled at Kennedy on the day of his fatal visit to
Dallas and the immediately preceding days.
Two days before President Kennedy’s trip to Dallas, right-wingers began
circulating around the city some 5,000 anti-Kennedy handbills.
Entitled “Wanted for Treason,” these leaflets were designed to look
like a police “wanted” poster, with front and profile photographs of
The handbills shrieked:
“This man is wanted for treasonous activities against the United States:
1. Betraying the Constitution (which he is sworn to uphold):
He is turning the sovereignty of the U.S.
over to the communist controlled United Nations.
He is betraying our friends
(Cuba, Katanga, Portugal) and befriending our enemies (Russia,
2. He has been WRONG on
innumerable issues affecting the security of the U.S. (United
Nations-Berlin wall-Missile removal-Cuba-Wheat deals-Test Ban Treaty,
3. He has been lax in enforcing Communist Registration laws.
4. He has given support and encouragement to the Communist inspired racial riots.
5. He has illegally invaded a sovereign State with federal troops.
6. He has consistently appointed Anti-Christians to Federal office:
Upholds the Supreme Court in its Anti-Christian rulings.
Aliens and known Communists abound in Federal offices.
7. He has been caught in fantastic
LIES to the American people (including personal ones like his previous
marriage and divorce).”
On the very day JFK visited Dallas and died, the local newspaper, The
Dallas Morning News, featured a full page, black-bordered anti-Kennedy
advertisement prepared and paid for by persons affiliated with the John
Birch Society, one of the most infamous right-wing extremist
organizations of the 1960’s. The ad claimed to be the work of
“The American Fact-Finding Committee,” in reality a nonexistent
organization. Bernard Weissman, listed on the ad as the chairman
of the Committee, however, did exist; he was the person who actually
placed the ad. Weissman later testified before the Warren
Commission. He was one of the few witnesses before that body who
deemed it prudent to appear accompanied by an attorney.
The ad began with a sarcastic “Welcome Mr. Kennedy to Dallas,” a city
which had been the victim of “a recent Liberal smear attempt” and which
had prospered “despite efforts by you and your administration to
penalize it for non-conformity to ‘New Frontierism’.” The ad then
posed a series of belligerent, insulting loaded questions, including:
“Why has Gus Hall, head of the U.S. Communist Party,
praised almost every one of your policies and announced that his party
will endorse and support your re-election bid?”
“Why have you ordered or permitted your brother
Bobby, the Attorney General, to go soft on Communists,
fellow-travelers, and ultra-leftists in America, while permitting him
to persecute loyal Americans who criticize you, your administration,
and your leadership?”
“Why have you scrapped the Monroe Doctrine in favor of the ‘Spirit of Moscow’?”
Later that morning there were disparaging protests by right-wingers
against JFK along the route of the presidential motorcade as it
traveled from the airport to downtown Dallas. As the motorcade
drove through the suburbs, with President Kennedy only minutes from
death, an unfriendly-looking man in a business suit stood on a sidewalk
in an aggressive posture holding a protest sign which screamed:
“Because of high regard for the presidency I hold you JFK and your
blind socialism in complete contempt.” (A photograph of this
right-wing protestor with his sign, taken by Dallas newspaper
photographer Tom Dillard, is reproduced on p. 438 of Richard B. Trask’s
Pictures of the Pain: Photography and the Assassination of President
In Dealey Plaza, at the time of the actual assassination, there was at
least one right-winger present publicly expressing his scorn for the
president. On the sidewalk near the Stemmons Freeway traffic
sign, only a few feet from the slow-moving presidential limousine
during the very moments rifle bullets were slamming into JFK’s body, a
mysterious man stood wearing a suit and, unlike anyone else there,
holding up an open, black umbrella on this warm, sunshiny day.
(The “Umbrella Man,” as this enigmatic character soon was dubbed, is
visible in the Zapruder film. He also can be seen in a famous
still color photograph of the assassination taken by amateur
photographer Phil Willis. The Willis photo is reproduced on p.
190 of Robert J. Groden’s The Killing of a President (1993).)
The identity of the Umbrella Man remained a secret for 15 years.
Then, in September 1978, a man named Louie Steven Witt appeared before
the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations
and admitted that he was the Umbrella Man. He told the Committee
that he been there in Dealey Plaza to heckle JFK, and that he displayed
the umbrella because he was under the impression that brandishing an
umbrella would irritate JFK. He testified: “I was going to use
this umbrella to heckle the President’s motorcade. ... Being a
conservative-type fellow, I sort of placed him [JFK] in the liberal
camp, and I was just sort of going to kind of do a little heckling. ...
I just knew it was a sore spot with the Kennedys. ... I was carrying
that stupid umbrella, intent [on] heckling the President.” Witt denied
that the umbrella he had in Dealey Plaza symbolized the appeasement
practices of English Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (who often
sported a black umbrella), or that the umbrella was intended to suggest
that JFK was appeasing Communism the way Chamberlain had appeased
Hitler. This denial is not credible. Among right-wingers,
it was an article of faith that JFK’s supposedly soft, weak-kneed
policies against the threat of Communism were the equivalent of
Chamberlain’s futile attempts to appease Adolf Hitler.
Not even Kennedy’s death at 1 p.m. at Parkland Memorial Hospital in
Dallas stopped right-wingers from publicly displaying their loathing of
JFK. As William Manchester notes in his classic The Death of a
(1967): “At 3:05 p.m., when 80 percent of the American People
were in deep grief, an NBC camera panned toward a group of spectators
outside Parkland’s emergency entrance and picked up a young man with a
placard that read, ‘Yankee, Go Home.’” (In a wealthy Dallas
suburb, Manchester reminds us, “pupils of a fourth-grade class, told
that the President of the United States had been murdered in their
city, burst into spontaneous applause.”)
The right-wingers who angrily and contemptuously protested JFK’s visit,
and the many other right-wingers who shared their views, could only
have been jubilant when they heard of the assassination. How
could persons with their mentality not be pleased with the violent
death of a man they believed to be a fiendish traitor? It is an
historical truth that right-wingers all over America received the news
of the assassination with celebration. There is plenty of
evidence that numerous right-wingers, especially the radical ones,
heartily huzzaed the JFK slaying, although they soon decided to conceal
their exuberance and later denied having cheered. William
Manchester’s book, for example, discusses the “initial glee” with which
right-wingers greeted news of the assassination. “An Oklahoma
City physician beamed at a grief-stricken visitor and said,
‘Good. I hope they got Jackie.’” In Amarillo, Texas, a
woman reacted by saying: “Hey, great, JFK’s croaked!” Men whooped
and threw their hats in the air. Others smiled broadly.
Soon, however, the right-wingers realized that their public gloating
was a ghastly mistake, whereupon they began concealing their
happiness. “[T]hey were anxious to avoid the undertow of public
opinion,” Manchester says.
Right-wingers–those on the rightist side of the political spectrum–have
always been apostles of hate. Today right-wingers give us hate
talk radio, hate radio personalities, hate TV commentators, and hate
books and articles. But what Gerry Spence calls “the new conservative
hate culture” is not really new. In 1963, the hate of the
right-wingers was directed at John F. Kennedy, a hatred so pathological
and warped that induced it them to exult over the horrible public
murder of a reformist American president, a great and decent man, a war
hero, a man of vision and compassion, the symbol of a hopeful
generation. But the frenzied hatred that caused right-wingers to
make merry when JFK was slain is the same delirious hatred that today
motivates right-wingers to mock and cruelly imitate the physical
symptoms of Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s disease.
Americans have forgotten that Dallas right-wingers bitterly protested
Kennedy’s visit to Dallas; that the presidential motorcade was greeted
with signs expressing contempt for JFK; that even as JFK’s limousine
came under rifle fire right-wingers were present taunting him; that
even after he was a corpse there were protesters nearby displaying
insulting placards. Americans have also forgotten the joy with
which right-wingers reacted to the assassination.
But these matters must not be allowed to sink into oblivion. The
lesson to be learned is that right-wing elements poison our body
politic by practicing the politics of hate, and must be stopped.
As Chief Justice Warren said in a eulogy delivered in the U.S. Capitol
Rotunda two days after the assassination: “[Acts such as JFK’s murder]
are commonly stimulated by forces of hatred and malevolence. ...
What a price we pay for this fanaticism. ... If we really love this
country, if we truly love justice and mercy, if we fervently want to
make this nation better for those who are to follow, we can at least
abjure the hatred that consumes people, the false accusations that
divide us, and the bitterness that begets violence.”