Local voices: The JFK assassination: A reporter's perspective

November 22, 2013 10:19:32 AM



Editor's note: Wallace Dabbs grew up in Columbus, studied journalism at Ole Miss and worked at The Dispatch. At the time of the JFK assassination he was a young reporter at the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson. Earlier this week Dabbs faxed us this typewritten account of that event and the days that followed. 




The world has turned over many times since that fateful day in Dallas 50 years ago when President Kennedy was killed. Anyone who was old enough to understand what happened knows exactly where they were and what they were doing when they first heard the president was dead. 


At that time I was gainfully employed as a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger newspaper... just a kid. 


I was at home listening to Channel 12 (CBS) to a soap opera "As the World Turns" when Walter Cronkite, the chief news anchor for CBS news, came on to announce that there had been shots fired at the presidential car in Dallas and Kennedy was being taken to a local hospital. I was stunned. It took me a few minutes to comprehend just what I had heard. 


I began to dress to go to the newsroom since I knew that this event would call for every editorial staff member to work on the story. 


As I was walking out the door to go to work, Cronkite announced that the president was dead. "Damn," I said aloud to myself as I raced to my car. 


I learned later that Perry Nations, a photographer for The Clarion-Ledger, was perhaps the first person in Jackson to learn of Kennedy's death. 


He happened to be walking in past the teletype room where news came into the newspaper via teletype machines which printed the Associated Press and United Press International news from around the world on rolls of paper. Perry said he heard bells ringing alerting subscribers to AP and UPI that something very important was being sent. 


Perry said he walked into the room and read the news...it came in the words preceded by FLASH_FLASH_FLASH, an alert used very seldom. Then he read the jarring news: "President Kennedy dead." 


When I arrived at the newsroom, many on the editorial staff were already there, and others would arrive shortly thereafter. 


As usual the newsroom was in a state of controlled chaos as when major news stories were breaking. Phones were ringing. Shouts of "copy boy" came from desk editors. 


A television set had been up in the office of our executive editor, Purser Hewitt. The major news networks remained on the air giving the latest news on President Kennedy's death. 




Strangely quiet 


There was not the usual sound of chatter and manual typewriters in the newsroom. The room was strangely quiet as reporters and copy editors and layout page editors began preparing the paper for the first of several editions printed by The Clarion-Ledger each night. Most of the editorial staff worked from 3 p.m. until midnight when the last edition "went to bed." 


Everybody went about their assignment, which was to call local officials and politicians to get their reaction. 


I was assigned to call former Gov. J.P. Coleman, a long time friend of the president, who had even once nominated him at a national Democratic convention to be the vice-presidential selection on the national ticket.  


Coleman's efforts failed, but when Kennedy was eventually elected president, he offered Coleman the position of Secretary of the Army and an ambassadorship to Australia. Coleman turned both down. 


When Coleman was governor, he had invited Kennedy, who at that time was a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, to come to Mississippi to speak to a political group called Mississippi Young Democrats and spend the night in the governor's mansion. 


Little did Gov. Coleman know then that his act of hospitality would cost him his second bid to serve as governor of Mississippi for allowing "that damn Yankee" to sleep in within the hallowed walls of the governor's mansion. 


In the newsroom, the final edition of The Clarion-Ledger had been prepared for press in time for the midnight deadline. 


Those were worked and got off midnight usually had a routine we followed. (Keep in mind that time there was only two television stations in Jackson...WJTV Channel 12 and WLBT Channel 3, and they went of the air at 11 p.m.) 


And those of us who worked until midnight would usually load into our cars and stop first at the Wagon Wheel night club on South Farish Street and have a few beers with owner Houston Barnett and bartender Tommy Bradley. When they closed at 1 a.m. we would migrate to the Sirloin Room, another nightclub located on Delta Drive, headed towards Yazoo City and just outside the Jackson city limits. When the Sirloin Room closed around 2:30 a.m., we'd head to the Steak House to eat. 


When we arrived at the Wagon Wheel we found it closed. As we drove out to Delta Drive to go to the Sirloin Room, we noticed that the city was deserted. No cars, no buses, nobody walking the streets ... not even any police cars, nothing and nobody could be seen. It was as if the entire city was on lockdown. 


As we drove along, there was speculation as to whether the Sirloin Room would be open. It was. A couple of cars parked out front. 




Time for a drink 


Inside we found owner Kate Taylor and her two waiters, Ray and Robert, along with a couple of customers. Nobody was saying a word. We all sat down at a table and Ray and Robert came over to serve us. One reporter had brought a fifth of Old Charter bourbon and some of us ordered setups while some ordered beer. It was time for drinking. Nobody was saying much of anything. Everyone seemed to be lost in his thoughts. 


After the two customers had left, Ray and Robert came over to our table and joined us along with Mrs. Taylor after she had locked the front door to keep anyone else from coming in. Around 3 a.m. we left and drove past the Steak House which was closed. Again, the streets were totally deserted. I don't remember even seeing a stray dog. 


The next day at work the newsroom still had a somber atmosphere. Professional journalists just going about their own business. 


In the meantime, the governors of all the states had been invited to come to Washington to pay their respects to the fallen president. 


I was assigned to travel with Gov. Ross Barnett on a National Guard four-engine Constellation. Also on that flight were Nations, Bill Simpson, a reporter for the Jackson Daily News, Gov. Barnett and his wife, his son and his wife. 


Nobody spoke much on the flight. There were two Air Force enlisted men who served as attendants.. 


We arrived at Andrews Air Force base in Washington where cars driven by military personnel met us along with other governors and their entourage. We were taken to the White House. 


Our driver happened to be from Rolling Fork. 


We arrived at the White House and the governor and his family were quickly told where to go. We explained to the guards that we were traveling with the governor and he directed us to where we were supposed to go wait for Gov. Barnett and his family would be once they had paid their respects to the dead president. 


We did as we were told and unexpectedly we found ourselves in the receiving line in the room where the casket had been placed and the Kennedy family was greeting mourners and shaking hands and thanking them for coming. All were dressed in black. 




Stone-cold shock 


Their faces still had that stone-cold shock expression along with the saddest eyes I had ever seen. I can still see them today. 


I remember shaking hands with Bobby Kennedy. He nodded his head acknowledging me. I returned the nod. I had met him on several occasions, mainly at racial hot spots as I crisscrossed the South covering these sometimes violent events. 


Later that night we returned to Jackson. Again nobody spoke much during the flight home. To tell you the truth, it all seemed like a bad dream. The only problem was, it wasn't. It continued for days after the assassination. So many stunning events occurred in such a rapid succession that the nation seemed frozen in time. We all seemed hypnotized. 


First came the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald for killing President Kennedy. Then Oswald being fatally shot by Dallas night club owner Jack Ruby live on television in the basement of the Dallas police department as he was being transferred from the city jail to the county jail. Millions watched the live TV broadcast in disbelief as the shooter actually pulled the trigger. 


Then came the Kennedy funeral and burial. Who can forget these images on television: the funeral procession slowly making its way to Arlington National Cemetery, the entire Kennedy family walking behind the caisson bearing the flag- covered casket, the roll of drums, the riderless horse, the eternal flame at gravesite, the mournful sound of a bugler blowing taps. 


It has been said that our country lost its innocence with the death of President Kennedy. Perhaps this is true. Never had our people expressed such overwhelming sadness and grief for a fallen president, at least not since the death of Lincoln. 


But to me it was much more than grief and sadness. It seems this tragic act seared the very soul of our nation. We became cynical and paranoid. We still are and the pain that was inflicted that day in Dallas remains to this day, even 50 years later. 


Wallace Dabbs, a 1955 graduate of S.D. Lee High in Columbus, is a retired journalist living in Canton.