At Dealey Plaza, a lost chance to commemorate history

Dealey Plaza
Dealey Plaza shows signs of preparations for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of JFK being assassinated downtown Dallas Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013. Days before Dallas' observance of JFK assassination date, Xs marking shooting spots on the street were removed by city work crews.
LM Otero/AP

Something about Dealey Plaza is a letdown.

You could pass right through it and never know that this was where a president lost his life. You might drive over the sad X that marks the spot with no more thought than you'd give a manhole cover. There's nothing extraordinary about the so-called grassy knoll, or Elm Street, or what used to be called the Texas School Book Depository.

A museum now occupies two floors of the depository, where Lee Harvey Oswald made his sniper's nest. The window he used is sealed off, but a visitor can go to the next one and look down, and watch cars pass over the X on the pavement. People who can't make the trip to Dallas can go online and get the same view from a live webcam, but on a computer screen the image seems distant. It's only in person that a visitor realizes how small the place is, how close the president came to the man who waited to kill him.

The X was removed just in time for this week's observances, but it's been removed before and it always comes back. Once the anniversary has passed, Dealey Plaza will be as it was: a place too small and too ordinary to have been the scene of such a momentous event.

Less than 500 miles to the east is another site with a horrific past, but one that does a better job of honoring its history. At the Lorraine Motel, where James Earl Ray shot the Rev. Martin Luther King, everything is preserved: the balcony where King was standing, the rooming-house bathroom window from which Ray fired. A visitor can stand where King stood, but a sign reminds him that this is sacred ground, so behave accordingly. A wreath hangs on the railing, and a recording plays Mahalia Jackson singing "Precious Lord, Take My Hand." There is no mistaking the solemnity of the place.

Dealey Plaza needs some of that solemnity.

Visitors to both the book depository in Dallas and the rooming house in Memphis pass through excellent exhibits documenting the crimes committed there and the times in which they occurred. The Memphis site is called the National Civil Rights Museum. The name fits, because what happened there was a crucial moment in the history of the civil rights movement. The Dallas site is called the Sixth Floor Museum, as if what happened there were of particular significance to the upper floors of warehouses.

The Lorraine Motel remained in business for a while after King's assassination, but it was never able to recover. Now it seems frozen in time. The room that King shared with Ralph Abernathy appears to be occupied, with rumpled beds and full ashtrays.

Maybe Martin Luther King's place in history is easier to define than John Kennedy's. Certainly more schoolchildren could identify "I have a dream today" than "Ask not what your country can do for you." But to the people who were schoolchildren in 1963, both King and Kennedy were towering figures, and both were lost to an incomprehensible evil. It made sense that Dion joined their names with Lincoln's in a song title.

At the Lorraine Motel, life has stopped, and it seems fitting. In Dealey Plaza, where cars routinely drive over the X, life goes on. And it feels wrong.