DALLAS — It was 50 years ago Friday that a nation was shocked and saddened when shots rang out in downtown Dallas.
Friday, North Texas celebrated President John F. Kennedy's life and reflected on that fateful day in 1963 when he was assassinated while riding through the downtown streets.
Roughly 5,000 people pulled panchos over themselves and huddled in Dealey Plaza to witness the city’s first organized event memorializing the tragedy that catapulted Dallas under the world’s microscope. The event honored the nation’s 35th president. However, it also served as a way for city leaders to promote Dallas’s progress since that day.
“The man we remember today gave us a gift that will not be squandered,” said Mayor Mike Rawlings during his stirring speech. “He and our city will forever be linked in tragedy, yes, but out of that tragedy an opportunity was granted to us: The chance to learn how to face the future when it’s the darkest and the most uncertain; how to hold high the torch even when the flame flickers and threatens to go out.”
After a bagpipe procession began the 45-minute event, Rawlings and presidential historian David McCullough, who quoted Kennedy and memorialized his legacy, delivered a pair of speeches. The U.S. Naval Academy Men’s Glee Club sang “America the Beautiful,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and the Navy Hymn. Rawlings revealed a permanent memorial at Dealey Plaza containing the final paragraph of a speech that Kennedy was set to give at the Dallas Trade Mart.
“We, in this country, in this generation, are — by destiny rather than by choice — the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of ‘peace on earth, good will toward men.’ That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: ‘except the Lord keep the city, the watchmen waketh but in vain.’"
“As his campaign song said, he had high hopes. And so did we. And on we go,” McCullough said.
The solemn events started with a 7:30 a.m. breakfast at the Hilton Hotel in Fort Worth, where Kennedy gave one of his final speeches and spent his last night. The sold-out breakfast was hosted by the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce and featured several guest speakers, including the former Speaker of the House Jim Wright, who spent the morning with Kennedy the day of his assassination.
Before Wright spoke, the Chamber of Commerce presented a video highlighting the former congressman's accomplishments.
"If I should live to be 100 years old and I spent every waking hour thanking someone for the good and kind things he or she has done to be helpful to me, I still wouldn't have enough time," he said after the presentation.
A World War II veteran, Wright served as the mayor of Weatherford from 1950 to 1954 before he became a congressman and speaker of the house. Friday, Wright provided copies of Kennedy's speech given at the hotel.
"It was actually 50 years from right now, in this very place, the 35th president of the United States, John F. Kennedy made the last speech," he said.
Wright said the speech the president gave that day was one of inspiration.
"He didn't criticize political opponents," he said. "He didn't beg for votes or political contributions. He spent the first moments of his speech bragging on Fort Worth."
Wright said he rode with the president on Air Force One with former Texas Gov. John Connally as it traveled from Fort Worth to Dallas. During that trip, the president asked Wright and Connally to join him and talk about the "developments, strengths and growths" of Dallas and Fort Worth.
"John and I were doing the best we could, aware that we really didn't have all the the answers and had not anticipated the question," Wright said. "When we landed in Dallas, the president turned to us and said, 'We must continue this conversation on the way to Austin this afternoon.' It is my fond hope that at some future time, the divine will permitting and in some blissful time, the three of us may resume that conversation."
Former Secret Service Agent Clint Hill, who was in the presidential motorcade and assigned to Mrs. Kennedy from 1960 to 1964, also spoke. Hill was with the Kennedys for a two-day, five-city tour through Texas, which occurred as the president started his 1964 presidential campaign.
Hill, whose code name was "Dazzle," said it was Mrs. Kennedy's first domestic political trip since her husband became president. The former agent shared images and stories of the Kennedys from their trips domestically and abroad.
"They were happy with the reception they received all throughout Texas," Hill said. "... When we got to Fort Worth it was amazing. We arrived at about 11:05 in the evening, light rain, and yet thousands of people were there to greet the president and Mrs. Kennedy. By the time we got here to the hotel, 5,000 more people were outside clamoring to see the two of them."
At 1 p.m., WFAA will broadcast the full original coverage that aired Nov. 22, 1963.
The fatal shots were fired at 12:30 p.m. as Kennedy rode in a motorcade through downtown Dallas. He was transported to Parkland Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 1 p.m.
The Texas Theatre is also hosting an event Friday afternoon. The theater will open for a special screening of "War is Hell." It's the same movie that was screening when Lee Harvey Oswald sneaked into the theater at 231 Jefferson Street.
Oswald killed Dallas police Ofc. J.D. Tippit, moments after Kennedy was assassinated. Police converged on the theater after receiving word that Oswald was inside. Police struggled with Oswald before taking him into custody and marching him outside, where a crowd gathered.
Starting at 1:30 p.m., the Texas Theatre will play the first 40 minutes of "War is Hell." Tickets cost 90 cents, the same price as in 1963.
WFAA's Marcus Moore and Matt Goodman contributed to this report