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50 years after JFK’s assassination: a brief guide to reliable sources

As the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination approaches, our guide for researchers, reporters and concerned citizens offers a list of reliable sources for examining one of history's most shocking crimes.

The fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963 is a time of commemoration, a pause for reflection, and font of stories for a global media still fascinated by this American tragedy.

The Kennedy assassination has sparked dozens of theories, hundreds of volumes and gallons of digital ink, with some sources more credible than others.  If you have been assigned to cover this landmark event, or have an interest in its history or its many controversies, I offer a brief guide to the best places to go for useful information without getting caught in a web of conspiracies. 

I’ve been following this story since the day in November 1963 when my mom kept me home from school with a fever.  I was watching a soap opera with her when a bulletin broke the news: “In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade.”

And about a half hour later, I heard the first contradictory breath, which you can watch on YouTube at about 26:50 from CBS News as Walter Cronkite reported:

Some of the Secret Service agents thought the gunfire however was from an automatic weapon fired to the right rear of the chief executive’s car possibly from a grassy knoll and that’s that knoll to which motorcycle policemen were seen racing and where the huddled figures of a man and woman were seen on the ground with the crowd surrounding them which suggests of course that perhaps this is where the shots came from. This we do not know as yet positively.

I was present for the creation of conspiracy theories and subsequent investigations, allegations, re-investigations and revelations.  Fifty years later, in the light of my experience as an investigative journalist, I see the arc of the JFK story is not about conspiracy so much as transparency.

 As the Associated Press’s recent story reports:  “Five decades later, some JFK assassination files still sealed."

 Certain files held by the Warren Commission and House Select Committee were originally ordered sealed, for privacy, security and other considerations, well into the 21st century.

Thus the historical record of JFK's death was actually hidden from public view. Decades passed before public pressure spurred by Oliver Stone’s 1991 film “JFK” pierced the veil of secrecy. In October 1992, Congress passed the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of, which established the Assassination Records Review Board, or ARRB, to oversee the review and release of JFK records.

More than five million pages of documents have been released and are available for review, but the ARRB agreed to a request from the CIA to withhold about 1,100 records for national security reasons.

More on the continuing effort to release all the JFK records by journalist (and friend) Jefferson Morley can be found on his well-regarded site JFK Facts. The site also offers a guide to the “best” and “worst” JFK-related sites online. 

The Mary Ferrell Foundation has over a million pages of scanned and searchable records, mostly copies of records in the JFK Records Collection, which is maintained at National Archives II in College Park, Maryland. You can search the National Archives database of JFK Assassination Records here, but you’ll have to visit College Park to retrieve and read the documents.  The Mary Ferrell Foundation (above) provides access to around 20 percent of the documents, with a subscription.

Journalist Philip Shenon’s new book, A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination,” investigates the Warren Commission’s investigation, and finds its flaws. 

Shenon told NPR: “You know, a big theme of my book is the destruction of evidence, and the destruction of evidence begins within hours of the president’s death. President Kennedy is assassinated on a Friday. On Saturday night, his autopsy report is pushed into the fireplace by the Navy pathologist. Several hours after that, FBI agents in Dallas shred a handwritten note that Oswald had left for them just a few weeks before and flush it down the toilet.”

In the New Yorker Adam Gopnik, reading the “assassination literature” of a half century concludes:

…to read the hundreds of books, with their hundreds of theories, fingering everyone from Melvin Belli to the Mossad; to visit Dealey Plaza on trips to Dallas; and to venture in the middle of the night onto the assassination forums and chat rooms—is to find two truths overlaid. The first truth is that the evidence that the American security services gathered, within the first hours and weeks and months, to persuade the world of the sole guilt of Lee Harvey Oswald remains formidable: ballistics evidence, eyewitness evidence, ear-witness evidence, fingerprint evidence, firearms evidence, circumstantial evidence, fibre evidence. The second truth of the assassination, just as inarguable, is that the security services collecting that evidence were themselves up to their armpits in sinister behavior, even conspiring with some of the worst people in the world to kill the Presidents of other countries. The accepted division of American life into two orders—an official one of rectitude, a seedy lower order of crime—collapses under scrutiny, like the alibi in a classic film noir.

To dive in, as Gopnik did, here are some of the best sites for research:

The JFK Presidential Library in Boston has an online exhibition of documents and multimedia on his life but not his death.

The Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas Sixth and the Newseum in Washington DC also offer anniversary exhibits and documentation online.

The Dallas Morning News has been covering the anniversary with resources from the newspaper’s archives as well as continuing coverage of the local events.

From the UK, the web site 22 November 1963 is an introduction to the topic and attempts to deal with the controversies in a “relatively scholarly manner.”

You can visit the Exposition JFK 1963-2013 in Paris online here.

To search and read newspapers in PDF format from November 1963, use Google News Advanced Search.

Author David Talbot provides his list of recommended books and web sites in Salon with the exhortation:

The assassination of President Kennedy and its subsequent cover-up was a triumph for the rapidly growing U.S. national security state. Fifty years later, that surveillance colossus increasingly treats the American people as if we’re enemies of the state. We can begin to take control of our future by finally demanding ownership of our past.

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