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JFK assassination: City archives reveal how LA coped on that day 50 years ago

by Michael Holland | Off-Ramp®

November 23, 1963. Officials at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum cancelled a scheduled USC-UCLA football game because of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, leaving the stadium empty and its flags flown at half mast. Just three years earlier, Kennedy accepted the Democratic Party's nomination for president at the same site. LAPL Archives/Herald-Examiner Collection

Michael Holland is the Los Angeles City Archivist and a passionate historian. He was only 2 years old on Nov. 22, 1963, too young for a memory of the day. So he turned to Los Angeles' archives to see how L.A. handled and processed that weekend 50 years ago. Holland's piece first appeared in the city of L.A. employee newspaper Alive.

The City Council was in regular Friday session. They’d approved a height limit district for high-rise construction for a section of Los Feliz Boulevard when the news came in about the shooting in Dallas. According to the Council minutes “Mr. Lindsay – that’s Gilbert Lindsay – the first black councilman – moved , seconded by Mrs. Wyman – that’s Rosalind Wyman – the only woman on the Council at that time – that the Council do now adjourn.”

It is not clear where everyone went after the meeting ended, but you can bet it was any office in City Hall with a radio or TV.

Council File 11-63-38 contains some of the documents and artifacts that fill in some of the details of what happened over the next few days.

The emergency forced people to rearrange their schedules. Councilman Lindsay’s 1963 daily reminder included a 2:30 meeting in Room M-42 in  City Hall Friday afternoon and a 7 p.m. event at the Ambassador Hotel with the Mexican Chamber of Commerce. Both events are crossed out with the notation “President Kennedy killed,” and the next three days on the schedule are crossed out “cancel on account of Kennedy.”

Rosalind Wyman, who had been active in the Kennedy campaign during the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles, now went about coordinating a memorial observance to take place on the steps of City Hall.

Meanwhile, Council president John Gibson ordered the city clerk to send a telegram to every councilmember requesting them to attend a special session that would declare a local day of mourning for Monday, Nov. 25. Mayor Sam Yorty wrote a letter to the council pointing out he didn’t have the authority to declare a legal holiday or a day of mourning without their concurrence. The meeting took place in the Council Chamber at City Hall at 10 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 24, the first Sunday meeting anyone could remember.

The special session lasted only 10 minutes. An official resolution was read into the record and approved by the entire council. Councilman Billy Mills read an invocation, which included the following: “Jesus Christ, Ghandi, Medgar Evers and John Fitzgerald Kennedy have given us a standard … freedom, justice, equality, righteousness, godliness, moral emancipation for all men.”

A Los Angeles Times clipping in the file recounted another bit of history taking place on that Sunday in Dallas: “The session had barely gotten underway when news of the fatal shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald was flashed. Councilmen greeted it somberly.”

The public observances began Sunday afternoon at the Sports Arena, where Kennedy had been nominated as his party’s candidate three summers earlier. The L.A. Times reported the attendance surpassing 7,000 Angelenos.

That evening, by order of the mayor, lighted windows on all four sides of City Hall formed a cross and remained lighted all night long.

Although he was not a fixture in Los Angeles, Kennedy visited several times as President – the last time in June 1963. The scrapbooks of Gilbert Lindsay and John Ferraro contain several photos of his visits. There are also several images of the memorial on the steps of City Hall.

The Los Angeles Times reported that buses and trains stopped for one minute at 9 a.m. local time that Monday to coincide with the start of the late president’s requiem mass in Washington. People gathered on the City Hall steps facing Spring Street at noon and grieved on a sunny afternoon in Los Angeles.

The next day, Tuesday, Nov. 26, 1963, the city returned to business as usual.

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