Winthrop students OK with muddy answers to JFK assassination questions

adouglas@heraldonline.comNovember 19, 2013 

  • Want to go?

    What: “The Kennedy Assassination 50 Years Later,” a conversation led by Winthrop University professors John Bird and Rory Cornish. The event is free and includes a question-and-answer period.

    When: 7 p.m. Thursday

    Where: Kinard Auditorium in Kinard Hall at Winthrop

Winthrop University students studying the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy say they’ve sharpened their critical thinking skills over the past few months while poring over the case.

The students are in one of the university’s required courses, called critical reading, writing and thinking.

Most versions of the class teach the theory behind critical thinking skills but the Kennedy-specific course gave students something tangible to debate, said student Linda O’Connor.

It’s easier to understand the basics of thinking critically about issues, she said, when applying class lessons to a real event.

Earlier this month, the students traveled to Dallas, where Kennedy was shot and killed by Lee Harvey Oswald. Friday is the 50th anniversary of the assassination.

Most of the Winthrop students said the trip changed their views in some way about what happened and how various government agencies and officials reacted.

Within one week of the assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson established the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy – a seven-member panel better known as the Warren Commission.

Earl Warren, then chief justice of the United States, chaired the commission.

One year after the assassination, the commission published its findings, which stated that Oswald acted alone in killing Kennedy. Alternate theories about what happened in Dallas have circulated since then.

Some Winthrop students in the Kennedy class say they think the Warren Commission was more concerned with appearances than truth. Some think the commission just wanted to help the nation find closure and move forward after the assassination, instead of pursuing all possible leads in the case.

For example, if Oswald was part of a group that conspired to kill the president, some students contend that the Warren Commission may have been concerned about compromising national security by publishing that finding.

Or, if the truth is that there was a government cover-up about the details of the assassination, some of the Winthrop students think the Warren Commission would not have wanted to make that public.

This week, students debated whether the Warren Commission members and their findings can be trusted in the face of the many questions about the assassination.

During the debate, some of the students argued on behalf of an investigation which led to the arrest and prosecution of Clay Shaw a few years after Kennedy was killed. Shaw was acquitted by a jury. Jim Garrison, a district attorney from Louisiana, led that investigation and eventually charged Shaw. He maintained that Shaw was a co-conspirator in the killing.

Garrison also accused the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency of plotting to kill Kennedy and thought that Oswald was used as a scapegoat. He believed Oswald never fired a shot at Kennedy in Dallas.

Most students in the Kennedy course at Winthrop say they have doubts about the Warren Commission’s findings but they aren’t sure the truth will ever be known.

Their professor, Winthrop’s Bryan Ghent, says that’s OK. One of his class goals, he said, was to teach students to be “comfortable with ambiguity” because thinking critically about something means all details aren’t always clear.

A recent Gallup poll shows that Ghent’s students’ doubts over the Warren Commission findings is common throughout America.

Nearly 8 out of 10 Americans believe there’s more to the case than what the Warren Commission reported, according to a March 2013 Gallup poll. The majority of Americans said in the poll they believe Oswald could have been part of a conspiracy.

Results from past Gallup polls on the topic show that Americans’ belief in a conspiracy has grown since 1963, when about half of respondents said they believed Oswald acted alone.

While the truth about the assassination may be elusive, Winthrop professor Kathy Davis says she’s happy to see students challenging the official accounts of what happened.

Davis sat in on Ghent’s class this semester. She was 7 years old when Kennedy was killed and she says she has memories of watching on TV the president’s motorcade in Dallas and his funeral later.

“I also remember distinctly watching a man, Lee Harvey Oswald, being shot on live television,” Davis said. “That’s not something that you ever forget, no matter how old you are when you see it.”

Since then, she’s read all she can about the assassination and Kennedy’s political life.

It was the “Zapruder film,” she said, that first made her believe Oswald could not have killed Kennedy alone.

Abraham Zapruder captured Kennedy’s assassination on camera on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza. Many people consider Zapruder’s film to be the most complete recorded image of Kennedy’s death.

Some who believe there was a cover-up or a conspiracy to kill Kennedy point to the film as proof that the president was shot in the head from the front – not the back. The Warren Commission found that Oswald fired three shots at Kennedy from behind.

Like some students in the Winthrop class, Davis believes the fatal shot at Kennedy likely came from the grassy knoll area of Dealey Plaza – which was in front of Kennedy at the time he was killed.

Watching the students pick apart the details, Davis said, has been a rewarding part of the class.

“Being a teacher for 36 years, I have had my doubts about the ‘younger generation’ ... and how they will take care of our country after I am gone,” she said.

But, Davis added, “it is clear to me from being with these 13 students on our trip to Dallas that they will not accept the ‘status quo’ and they will help this country to progress and become a better place to live – that’s what ‘they can do for their country’ – and I know they will.”

Ghent’s final assignment to his class is to write a paper that answers Kennedy’s question – “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” – delivered during his inaugural address in Washington, D.C., in 1961.

Many in the class will attend an event Thursday at Winthrop called “The Kennedy Assassination 50 Years Later.”

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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