By Stephen Fagin, Curator
The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy impacted millions around the globe, bookending for many a five-year period of violence and social unrest that began with the tragic death of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Although Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy are not often associated with the Dallas/Fort Worth area, which remains so intrinsically linked to the assassination of President Kennedy after nearly fifty-five years, the lives—and deaths—of these extraordinary leaders touched the local community in unique and profound ways.
Robert Kennedy never came to North Texas after his brother’s tragic death in 1963. However, while serving as counsel to the Senate Labor Rackets Investigating Committee in 1959, Robert Kennedy spoke in Dallas at a conference of the Texas Junior Bar Association. It was his only known visit to the city.
In 1959, Dr. King visited Fort Worth and spoke to a crowd of 400 at the Majestic Theater. King’s only speech in Fort Worth was one block away from where President Kennedy would deliver his last speech at the Hotel Texas four years later. Speaking invitations brought Dr. King to Dallas four times between June 1957 and September 1966. His earliest visit, before a crowd of more than 10,000, took place at Memorial Auditorium—the same venue where Senator John F. Kennedy would speak to local supporters three years later during the 1960 presidential campaign. Dr. King also spoke at the Texas State Fair Music Hall and at Southern Methodist University, where he concluded his remarks to a standing-room-only audience by quoting the same spiritual he cited during the March on Washington: “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty we are free at last.”
Following their assassinations in 1968, both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were mourned by the local community in large and small ways. Three days after King was assassinated, an interfaith memorial service was held in his memory at the Peoples Baptist Church in Dallas on April 7, 1968. Attended by thousands, the program featured many of the same speakers who had paid tribute to President Kennedy in 1963, including Mayor J. Erik Jonsson, Rabbi Levi Olan and Reverend Louis Saunders, who had performed Lee Harvey Oswald’s funeral services in Fort Worth. Prior to this official interfaith service, a group of approximately 300 marched around El Centro College in downtown Dallas in memory of Dr. King.
In Fort Worth, a wave of emotional shock and sorrow spurred concerned civic leaders to create a committee for coordinating city agencies in a unified effort to address race relations. Memorial observances were held at Texas Christian University where 300 students and faculty eulogized Dr. King and established a scholarship for an African American student in his honor. On Palm Sunday, April 7, approximately 2,000 gathered for a citywide memorial service held in the Daniel-Meyer Coliseum at TCU.
Reporting from Memphis, where Dr. King was assassinated, United Press International reporter Louis Cassels briefly turned his thoughts toward Dallas, noting that the Memphis community was experiencing firsthand how Dallas felt following the death of President Kennedy. Acknowledging that “it could happen anywhere,” Cassels wrote that “it takes just one hate-filled man with a rifle to plunge a nation into tragedy and a city into shame—as Dallas learned before Memphis.”
Cassels was prophetic in the idea that violence could happen anywhere, as the assassination of Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles sadly proved just two months later, on June 5, 1968. Upon news of Robert Kennedy’s death, officials in Fort Worth set up a memorial fund to provide an avenue “for those who wanted to express their faith in the ideals of Kennedy.” In Dallas, Kennedy was memorialized at an interfaith service similar to that of Dr. King, as hundreds gathered at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Cathedral to pay their respects. Elsewhere in the community, the local chapter of sorority Theta Nu Sigma turned their scheduled Citizenship Award Banquet into a tribute to the late senator by specifically honoring African American activists. Jewel Williams, president of the organization, spoke for many in Dallas when she noted that “real mourning is a vital expression that moves people forward and pushes them into the challenges with which they live.”
These artifacts are on display as part of Rebel Spirits: Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., a special temporary exhibit on the Museum’s seventh floor. Copies of the news clippings referenced above are also available for viewing at the Rebel Spirits exhibit. On view through September 3, 2018, Rebel Spirits is included with Museum general admission.
In planning Mourning a President, an exhibit about the funeral of John F. Kennedy, it was fitting that an American flag was selected as a key focal point. Prominently displayed is the flag that flew over the U.S. Senate during the period of mourning following the assassination of President Kennedy. This is the first time that this 15- by 10-foot flag, which is part of the Museum’s vast collection, has been on view fully unfurled since 1963.
The U.S. Senate wing flag is displayed on the seventh floor of The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.
The largest and most striking object in the temporary exhibit, this flag was hoisted above the Senate wing of the U.S. Capitol building on November 7, 1963 as a matter of routine. When news of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy reached Washington, D.C. on November 22, the flag was lowered to half-staff, and it remained that way until it was lowered on December 22, at the close of the official month of mourning. While this flag did not play a formal role in the funeral, it was a prominent symbol of the nation’s grief on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol.
When installing a historic artifact for public viewing, the desire is to make an object as accessible as possible while protecting it from damage – be it from environmental elements such as light or from risks associated with the display methods. The flag provided a unique challenge, due to both its size and age.
A textiles conservator carefully prepares the U.S. Senate wing flag for installation as part of the Mourning a President exhibit
In the exhibit’s planning phase, the Museum’s Collections staff enlisted a textiles conservator to examine the historic flag to help determine if it could be safely displayed. In February 2017, this critical assessment took place in a public space where Museum visitors were intrigued to witness the process. Assured the flag’s physical integrity was intact, staff proceeded with plans to install the flag in the future exhibition. “It’s in very good shape structurally. There was some discoloration, mainly in the center of the flag, which is common when textiles are in storage,” says Lindsey Richardson, Curator of Collections. “Stains were present on the flag when it was acquired by the Museum, and we can only speculate as to their origins.”
It was important that the manner of hanging the flag in the exhibit comply with advisory rules for display and care of the U.S. flag set out in the United States Flag Code, while at the same time ensuring the safety and long-term preservation of the flag as a museum artifact. Mounted from a custom-made rod and sleeve that both support the flag’s structure and allow it to extend freely from the top, the fully unfurled flag provides a striking centerpiece to the exhibit. Museum visitors are able to view and appreciate the flag in its entirety, while its safety and preservation needs are addressed by controlled lighting and a barrier rail.
When the exhibit closes, the flag will be cleaned and carefully stored using archival-grade materials, preserved for future generations as an important symbol of the death of one of this great nation’s most revered leaders.
The U.S. Senate Wing Flag will be on display as part of the Mourning a President exhibit until February 19, 2018.
Author’s Note: In 1954, President Eisenhower issued Proclamation 3044, which established federal guidelines for the display of flags at half-staff for national leaders and other officials as a mark of respect to their memory. The proclamation specified that upon the death of a president or former president, the flag must remain at half-staff for a thirty-day period. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy was the first presidential death following the proclamation, making Kennedy the first for whom the month of mourning was observed.
Additional information about what the American flag symbolizes can be found here.
Many visitors express curiosity about what goes on behind the scenes at The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, and this new series, “The Sixth Floor Museum: Behind the Scenes,” was created to answer those questions. It takes a lot of hard work and daily attention to every detail to protect and preserve the 50,000+ objects in our collection. From a multitude newspaper clippings to the recognizable Hertz sign formerly atop the Texas School Book Depository, there’s a myriad of exciting, interesting and unique items. The care of these objects is varied as well, and our Collections staff is up for the challenge of looking after a large array of objects. A number of items are on loan to the Museum, and the staff cares for these objects just as if they were our own. One such object is the FBI model, on display on the sixth floor.
Owned by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the FBI Model is on long-term loan to The Sixth Floor Museum, where it has been on display since 1995. The model was built by the FBI in 1964 to help investigate the Kennedy assassination and was also later used by the Warren Commission and the House Select Committee on Assassinations when they conducted their investigations. There are very strict conditions, especially regarding lighting, for this special object and the Museum is diligent about ensuring these conditions are met.
Recently, Abigail Aldrich, Exhibits Conservator at NARA, stopped by to assess the condition of the model. Aldrich says that one of the most interesting things about the FBI Model is that because it was developed specifically to assist with a criminal investigation, it was not built to last forever. For example, the shrubs and trees in the model are made with natural sponge, which is very fragile. Over time, tiny pieces might start to come off. Aldrich says this can’t be totally avoided, but meticulous care can help slow the aging process.
As a part of her assessment, Aldrich performed what is known as a “condition check” on the FBI Model. To do this, she compared the model’s current state to what was previously noted by NARA, checked for areas of concern and ran numerous tests. Light levels, temperature and humidity are monitored to make sure that those levels meet the exacting standards NARA sets in place for all objects on loan. Aldrich says that though she expected there to be significant change since the last time NARA checked the object, she was impressed by its overall condition.
The FBI Model is encased in special UV-filtered glass that keeps as much light as possible out of its case without obstructing one’s view of the model. To help prevent damage from light, the Collections department monitors surrounding light levels with both an environmental monitor and a light reader installed inside the FBI model case. If testing reveals that levels are incorrect, staff adjusts the model’s exposure to light sources. Sometimes, this means removing or rearranging light around the case.
Very little about the model’s condition has changed since the last time it was inspected by NARA. That’s a testament to The Sixth Floor Museum’s commitment to preservation and to the strong working relationship between NARA and our Collections staff.
by Ani Simmons, Education Program Coordinator, The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza
Teachers! Congrats on surviving the first week back to school with students! As a former teacher, I know this is always a great week of meeting new students and an exhausting week as you look ahead to the next 180 days of instruction.
Here at The Sixth Floor Museum, we have lots of resources to enhance your school year and hopefully, you’ll be able to take advantage of some of them.
In addition to our permanent exhibit, which tells the story of President Kennedy’s assassination and its impact, we have 2 special temporary exhibits this year that are certain to fit into your curriculum. Of course, you can book a school visit to the Museum at anytime.
A Time For Greatness: The 1960 Kennedy Campaign, through November 13, 2016
It’s the final few months of our special election year exhibit about one of the closest elections in U.S. history, Kennedy’s victory over Richard Nixon in 1960. Don’t miss this in-depth look at what is often considered to be the first modern day presidential campaign—noted for being the first election to feature a televised debate, the first to include all 50 states and the first to elect a president born in the 20th century.
Check out our TEK-aligned education program and lesson plans available at JFK.org/ATimeForGreatness, and don’t forget to book your trip to visit the exhibit before it closes after Election Day!
Amending America: The Bill of Rights, A National Archives and Records Administration Traveling Exhibit, January 24 – March 16, 2017
This special spring exhibit marks the 225th Anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights. Students will learn about how the first 10 amendments came to be and how each amendment protects our citizens.
Amending America: The Bill of Rights was created by the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. The national tour is presented in part by AT&T, History®, Seedlings Foundation, and the National Archives Foundation.
Stay tuned for public and education programs and pre/post-visit lesson information!
Did you know you can get more out of your visit to the Museum by adding a 50-minute in-depth program presented by the Museum‘s Educator and Curatorial staff? Programs are primary-source based and cover Texas standards related to critical thinking, primary sources and general social studies skills in grades 5-12. (National Standards can be found here.) Our Core Education Programs cover topics such as:
- Civil rights
- Elections and politics
- The Space Race and the Cold War
- Crime scene investigation and law enforcement
- Oral histories
Most programs are available 3 ways: at the Museum, at your school or via distance learning (DL) and range in price from $50 to $125. Visit JFK.org/education to see detailed program information and book today!
Primary Source Research Opportunities
Do you have a student (or several) interested in being part of the National History Day competition in 2017? The theme, Taking a Stand in History, has lots of connection possibilities to The Sixth Floor Museum! Find out more by checking out our FREE research library, the Reading Room, and the topical resource guides that our librarian has created just for you and your students who are interested in several popular topics, including: Civil Rights, Cuba, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, reporters, investigators and eyewitnesses to the Kennedy assassination and many more!
We offer teacher workshops mainly in the summer months; however, with special temporary exhibits we often offer teacher previews and workshops on the day before of the first day of the exhibit opening! Join our teacher email list and be the first to know about these special workshops and other special events throughout the year. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and ask to be put on the educator email list!
Did you know, as an educator, you can get discounted admission to the Museum with a valid educator ID? See President Kennedy’s story for just $8.50 year-round!
As a bonus, educators also get a 10% discount at the Museum Store+Café!
It is my pleasure to do what I can to make your job easier! Let me know how I can help! Please feel free to contact me at email@example.com or visit JFK.org/education anytime for more information about all we have to offer!
Have a great year and we’ll see you at the museum!