By Marice Richter
DALLAS (Reuters) - For 50 years, visitors from around the world have wandered across the grassy areas of Dealey Plaza, snapping photos and pointing up at the sixth-floor window of the building where Lee Harvey Oswald fired the shots that killed President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963.
Some call it hallowed ground, a place to reflect on the tragedy. For others, it is a chance to glean a tidbit of information to support an assassination conspiracy. But for the people who call Dallas home, Dealey Plaza was long associated with heartache and shame.
"His death forever changed our city, as well as the world," Mayor Mike Rawlings said in a statement ahead of Friday's 50th anniversary of the assassination. "We want to mark this tragic day by remembering a great president with the sense of dignity and history he deserves."
Thousands are expected for the city's first official ceremony in memory of the slain president. Only 5,000 people will be able to view it in Dealey Plaza, but video screens will be set up throughout downtown.
City leaders have said they want to show that Dallas acknowledges its role in the tragedy and is eager to honor the life and legacy of JFK. After having once been branded "the city of hate" and stigmatized by the rest of the world as "the city that killed Kennedy," it is another milestone.
A COLD WAR-ERA WELCOME
Although tens thousands of cheering citizens lined the streets of the president's motorcade route, Kennedy was aware that not everyone in Dallas was eager to host him.
In the early 1960s era of Cold War paranoia and simmering racial tension, a small but influential group of arch-conservatives "hijacked" message, according to Bill Minutaglio, a University of Texas professor and co-author of the new book "Dallas 1963."
A month before the assassination, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson was heckled as he delivered a speech in downtown Dallas and was struck on the head by a woman with a protest sign as he left the auditorium.
Kennedy arrived to learn that "Wanted" fliers with his image recast to resemble a criminal's mug shot were circulating on the streets in Dallas. A full-page ad appeared that morning in The Dallas Morning News seemingly mocking his decision-making on several important domestic and foreign issues.
"There was this strident, vitriolic atmosphere at the time in Dallas," Minutaglio said.
Minutaglio and others say it could have been the hostile environment that prompted Oswald, a former U.S. Marine and communist sympathizer, to settle into the sixth-floor window perch of the Texas School Book Depository where he was employed, and shoot at the motorcade, killing Kennedy and wounding Texas Governor John Connally.
As the nation grieved, a stunned Dallas reeled in shame.
"Dallas took the blame for the killing of Kennedy and the shooting of Oswald so he would never stand trial and be held accountable," said Hugh Aynesworth, a retired journalist and author who was there when the shots were fired.
RECOVER AND REPAIR
Dallas' effort to repair its image was fitful and the installation of a Kennedy Memorial downtown in 1970 seemed to do little.
In 1973, then-Mayor Wes Wise said he almost had to be restrained at a national mayor's conference when another mayor asked him how it felt "to be mayor of the city that killed the president?"
Wise, who was mayor from 1971 to 1976, succeeded in stopping the demolition of the vacant Book Depository building, which some business and civic leaders viewed as a constant reminder of the tragedy's taint.
"John Connally called me and said that if the building was torn down, Dallas would always be blamed for trying to erase what happened," Wise said.
Instead, Dallas County bought the building in 1977 and renovated it as office space, leaving the top two floors vacant.
Through an effort led by preservationists Lindalyn Adams and Conover Hunt, The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza opened in 1989 to chronicle the assassination and its aftermath and pay tribute to the life and legacy of JFK.
Stephen Fagin, associate curator at the Sixth Floor, said the museum was transformative for Dallas.
"It changed Dealey Plaza from a site of tragedy to a place of redemption," Fagin said.
This year about 350,000 people are expected to tour the museum with thousands more walking around outside on the plaza, Fagin said, making this place "the second-most visited historic site in Texas behind the Alamo."
In the 50 years since the assassination, Dallas has changed in many ways, growing into a mecca for Fortune 500 companies and recognized for world-renowned architecture, winning sports teams and abundant arts and cultural opportunities, said former U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, also a past mayor of Dallas.
"Dallas has become a lot more progressive otherwise I wouldn't have been elected," said Kirk, who was elected in 1995 as the city's first black mayor. "What happened in Dallas in 1963 could have happened in any city, particularly in any Southern city.
"It was Dallas' misfortune that it happened here," he said.
(Reporting by Marice Richter; Editing by Maureen Bavdek)