U.S. History postsThursday September 12, 2013
The Most Horrible Thing I've Ever Heard
Lately I’ve been reading “Popular Crime: Reflections on the celebration of violence,” by Bill James. Yes, that Bill James. Along with baseball stats, he’s apparently got a bit of a crime-story fixation. He considers himself an amateur sleuth. He has a few corrections in mind for the justice system.
In the book, he goes over some of the more famous murder cases in American history (Lizzie Bordon, Lindbergh Baby, O.J.), some sensational cases in their day that have receded from view (Elizabeth Canning, Mary Rogers, Hall-Mills), and he has a chapter on serial killers that will make you want to flee the planet.
He also talks about the most famous American murder of the 20th century: John F. Kennedy. And it’s there that I read one of the most horrible things I’ve ever read.
James begins many of his discussions by saying, basically, I’m just some guy; what the hell do I know? Then he tells you what the hell he knows. This is particularly true here. He says there are a zillion books on the JFK assassination—that you can read one a month for 20 years and not be done—but he can recommend two: Gerald Posner’s “Case Closed” and Bonar Menninger’s “Mortal Error.” I was familiar with the first (Oswald did it, by himself, get over it) but not the second, and that’s the one he really recommends. It’s based on the work of Baltimore ballistics expert Howard Donahue. In 1967, CBS News was attempting to recreate what Oswald had done to see that it could be done—to see if someone could hit a target at that distance with that gun three times in 5.6 seconds. So they hired Donahue. Who did it in 5.2 seconds. Case closed.
Except Donahue became fascinated with the assassination and did his own research and came to his own conclusions.
Three shots were fired that day at Dealey Plaza. This is what Donahue believes happened.
He believes Oswald fired the first two shots. The first missed, but a ricocheted fragment hit the President in the neck. The second shot hit both Kennedy and Connally. Then Oswald’s gun jammed and he never got off a third shot.
So what happened? Who fired the third shot? Was it David Ferrie in the grassy knoll with the candlestick?
Here’s why Donahue believes Oswald didn’t fire the third shot:
- The third bullet disintegrated upon impact, which a bullet from Oswald’s Carcano rifle would not have.
- A Carcano round fired at that distance—from Oswald to Kennedy—would not have had the impact the third bullet that hit Kennedy did.
- A Carcano round is 6.5 millimeters in diameter. The final, fatal entrance wound was 6 mm wide.
- The trajectory of the final bullet, based upon entrance and exit wounds as well as the position of the President’s head at the time, traces back, not to the book depository, but to the car directly behind Kennedy.
And who was in the car directly behind Kennedy? The Secret Service.
No, the Secret Service wasn’t in league with LBJ and Castro and the Mafia to bring down Kennedy. In some ways, it’s worse:
... a Secret Service man, George Hickey, grabbed a weapon when he heard the first shot. Hickey’s weapon accidentally fired, and that bullet, from Hickey’s gun, mortally wounded the President.
Hickey’s gun, an AR-15, uses bullets 5.56 mm in diameter, which disintegrate upon impact. Hickey was also close enough to the President to account for the big blam of the third shot.
An accident. A fucking accident. That’s how our history changed.
The night I read this I went numb with horror.
I should add that I, like James, don’t know anything, but I really don’t know anything. I don’t know ballistics and trajectories and yadda yaddas. I haven’t studied any of it.
But I know what makes sense. Here’s James:
On first hearing this theory, almost no one believes that it could be right. ... But I have read Mortal Error carefully, and I have to tell you, if there’s a flaw in his argument I don’t see it. Unlike the conspiracy theories, which are almost universally based on some conversations which tooks place in Russia in 1961, in New Orleans in 1962, or in Tampa in 1972, the Donahue analysis is based primarily upon a detailed, careful study of what happened in Dealey Plaza on November 22.
I still don’t know if it’s true or not. Most people think it isn’t. But of all the conspiracy theories out there, this is the one that fits my worldview. To plot out, and organize, and initiate, a murder of this size and scope, and then disappear from view? Poof? We’re just not that smart.
But a mistake? A screw-up? A horrible, horrible accident? Oh yeah. That’s us. That’s us all over.
How the March on Washington was Viewed in 1963
From my review of “Report Civil Rights,” Library of America's massive (and much-recommended) collection of eyewitness journalistic accounts and in-depth magazine articles on the civil-rights struggle from 1941 to 1973, which appeared in The Seattle Times 10 years ago:
Appropriately, some of the articles upend our warm, hazy view of [the March on Washington].
True, E.W. Kenworthy of The New York Times wrote that the demonstration had “an air of hootenanny about it”; but Russell Baker reminds us that by the time Dr. King spoke, “huge portions of the crowd had drifted out of earshot,” while civil-rights worker Michael Thelwell details how the Kennedy administration hijacked the march's original intent — a one-day sit-in to “completely immobilize the Congress” — and turned it into something “too sweet, too contrived, and its spirit too amiable to represent anything of the bitterness that had brought the people there.”
Bitterness? The March on Washington? Indeed. In Marlene Nadle's Village Voice article, in which a busload of New Yorkers ride to the march, a white Peace Corps volunteer talks, with perhaps too much paternalism, about why he wants to help Nigeria. Suddenly a black activist shouts, “If this thing comes to violence, yours will be the first throat we slit. We don't need your kind. Get out of our organization.”
To me, though, the most fascinating thing about the Library of America collection remains its lessons in journalistic objectivity.
From 1946 to 1963, most articles gave both sides of the argument, black rights vs. states' rights, and the journalist didn't choose sides. This is what Negroes think, this is what Southerners think. Decide for yourself.
That began to change after Birmingham, the March on Washington, and the JFK assassination. Among the societal assumptions ecompassed within journalistic objectivity, in other words, was the assumption, post '63, that Negroes had gotten a raw deal in the South and beyond. “The moral issue was simply too stark, and segregationist logic too twisted,” I wrote 10 years ago. “By June 1963, even The New York Times was referring to the White Citizens Council as 'a racist organization.'”
“It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream ...”
A 1944 menu in Stephenson, Wash.
Because we would have arrived at Wendy's place in Prindle, Wash., in the awkward hour after lunch without having had anything to eat, and because the paper-mill smell in Washougal was making one of our party lose his appetite, and because we didn't find much in Skamania or Bonneville, we ate lunch at the Big River Grill in Stephenson, Washington, much recommended, where we found this on the wall of our booth:
Click for a bigger view
The building has been there since the '20s, and was restored in the '90s, and it has a lot of license plates on the wall, along with a lot of good nostalgic items, meaning they are not overdone and seem specific to the location. Well, OK, so this is a menu from the Chicago Union Station Building. I still like it. I like the war bonds slogan. I like the use of “wearing items” for “clothes,” and “occupational expense” for “tip.” I like that there's a day on the menu, as if they change it every day. I like that this day is the same day a group of Nazis attempted to assassinate Hitler, and that, 25 years later, man walked on the moon. From the middle of World War II to walking on the moon. Talk about a giant leap for mankind.
What would you get? I might go traditional and go for the pork chops, mashed potatoes and string beans, and, for desert, butterscotch pie a la mode. Assorted cold meats looks pretty good, too.
OPA, by the way, is Office of Price Administration, which was created in 1941 and abandoned in 1947. Some of its powers were transferred to the FTC.
Does Anyone Know What the Civil Rights Movement Is Anymore?
The other day a Facebook friend directed me to Ann Hornaday's Washington Post article about how “The Butler,” or “Lee Daniels' The Butler,” will finally be putting the Civil Rights Movement on the big screen. Then she admits this:
“The Butler” largely focuses on Gaines’s family life and interactions with the presidential families he serves. But it also chronicles the burgeoning movement taking shape on the streets far beyond 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Exactly. It's the ups and downs of one fictional family—at least a black family this time—as seen against a backdrop of some aspects of the Civil Rights Movement. It's some mix of “Dowtown Abbey,” U.S. version, and “The Help.” It's a 21st-century “Backstairs at the White House,” which itself was a mix of “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Roots.” But it's hardly a big-screen rendition of the Civil Rights Movement.
But “The Butler” is a start, right? It's an attempt. That's mostly what Hornaday is saying. Particularly on the second and third pages of her essay, which go into the usual sad complaints that Hollywood studios only back superhero and tentpole movies rather than dramas.
And then you read the comments to her article.
I know. Never read the comments. It's the online version of “Never get off the boat.” And yet there they were.
The first commenter refuted the notion that we haven't portrayed the Civil Rights Movment on the big screen:
Ghosts of Mississippi
To Kill a Mockingbird
I'm sure there are others I can't remember.
The second one piled on:
Remember the TItans
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
A little American History 101 (or is it Movie History 101?) for the kids:
- Mississippi Burning: A glorification of the FBI during a fictionalized account of the murders of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner in Mississippi in 1964. Black people in the movie are mostly backdrops. They are incidental characters in their own story.
- Malcolm X: About the man who brought the Nation of Islam to prominence. But this is not about the Civil Rights Movement. It's about a different kind of separatism rather than an attempt at integration.
- Ghosts of Mississippi: More white people wrangling over black tragedy: this time, the murder of Medgar Evers in June 1963.
- To Kill a Mockingbird: Set in the 1930s, it has nothing to do with the Civil Rights Movement.
- Remember the Titans: Set in the 1970s, it's about football. (But it does have a good line by Denzel.)
- Guess Who's Coming to Dinner: A white famly wrangles with the prospect of their daughter marrying a handsome doctor.
Seriously, does anyone know what the Civil Rights Movement is anymore?