And We Are All Mortal: It’s Up to You
The following is the speech I was due to deliver at the 2019 JFK Assassination Conference Dallas Speaker’s Banquet. Unfortunately, my speech didn’t happen.
The honor I feel today standing in front of you, the community of political assassination researchers is second only to being part of the community. Thank you, Judyth, for the kind invitation to speak at this years’ speaker’s banquet. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m the director of The Searchers, an instructor of film & video at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies and a proud board member of the Center for Deep Political Research.
At the conclusion of Oliver Stone’s 1991 film, JFK, the character of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, played by Oscar winner, Kevin Costner, delivers the final summation in the trial of accused conspirator Clay Shaw. At the end of the incredible eight minute long monologue, Costner breaks the fourth wall and settles his gaze directly into the camera and upon the audience. At each of us. He then states, profoundly, simply, directly, “It’s up to you.” While that moment set me upon my journey into the world of the JFK assassination researcher, it would be a quarter century until I fully understood the true meaning of that line.
Over the next decade, I devoured every video and book that I could relating to the assassination. It was only in 2001 that I decided it was time to test the waters of the greater research community. Scouring the internet revealed that there was a conference in Dallas entitled, November in Dallas, put on by JFK Lancer Publications and Productions. I purchased a ticket immediately. It was held in a grand ballroom of an upscale hotel out of my price range, so I stayed in a 2-star flea bag not far from the Trade Mart. It was actually a terrific entry for someone like me, a guy who knew he didn’t know anything but wanted to learn. I found the speakers and their presentations to be extremely interesting and I took notes voraciously. It was the JFK impersonator reciting part of Kennedy’s inauguration speech that revealed this to be less of a conference and more of a convention. Fine for some, a bit disappointing for me.
Lucky for me that I was approached by one of the attendees, a woman who obviously knew everyone: fellow attendees, organizers, witnesses and speakers. She asked if this was my first assassination trip to Dallas, then asked if I was going to the “other conference”. I responded with a blank stare to which she suggested I go across town to check out the real conference: “It’s a lot smaller and less commercial”.
This was my first taste of the intra-community divide.
I jumped into my rental car and sped to the old Hotel Lawrence – now depressingly a La Quinta Inn – just a block from Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas. Crammed into tiny second floor meeting room was the annual regional meeting of COPA – the Coalition on Political Assassinations. Around thirty mostly bespeckled and middle aged guys listened raptured to a Santa-meets-Malcolm X character, longtime executive director and co-founder of COPA, John Patrick Judge. This, I thought, was the real, academic community I had been hoping to find. And it was at that moment that I decided to embark upon what was to become a fourteen year journey making my film, The Searchers.
John was not only the central character of my film, but he became my research mentor and, most of all, my friend. I do find it beyond satisfying that Judyth and John were able to come together as co-workers towards the truth before he died. John could be a stubborn guy, so that’s most likely in no small part to Judyth’s commitment to making that happen.
As a non-fiction filmmaker one of the pillars of the philosophy of our work is to always maintain a separation between yourself and your subject and the participants of your film. One of my proudest achievements is that I threw that out of the window and not only broke the wall between myself and the research community but I became a researcher myself. I truly believe that in this case, that is the only way to honestly portray what the role of a researcher is in our democracy but also what the community have faced over the last 56 years.
What struck me early on was the political and philosophical diversity of the research community. You’d find the most right wing conservative sitting next to the most left wing liberal, both working together for the truth behind the murder of our president. How in the hell, I thought, was it possible that people who couldn’t agree on an ice cream flavor could agree on this complicated and confusing area of study. Researcher Walt Brown, author of the People vs. Lee Harvey Oswald, answered that when I interviewed him in the late oughts. “If someone were to have told me on November 22nd, 1963 that a vast majority of my best friends are my friends because of that day, I would’ve said ‘you’re crazy’. We’re a family.” After a few seconds, Brown continued with the caveat: “but we might do as families sometimes do.”
During my relatively short time as part of the community, there have been conferences held by a number of different, sometimes competing, organizations: the Coalition on Political Assassinations, JFK Lancer, Dealey Plaza U.K., the Conspiracy Museum, the JFK Assassination Information Center, the Assassination Archives & Research Center, the JFK Historical Group, JFK: The Continuing Inquiry, Citizens Against Political Assassinations as well as us here at this stellar JFK Dallas Conference. And while it’s tough enough for the community to come together for a weekend in Dallas every November, one not need to spend much time on social media to see the growing divide among the diaspora of researchers. Facebook alone contains dozens upon dozens of groups dedicated to the assassination and a cursory glance at the comments in those groups reveals a deep mistrust between many researchers. This isn’t new, it’s now just faster and the relative anonymity makes criticism more intense, more personal, and more destructive.
As some of you know, I served for a short period of time on the board of CAPA – Citizens Against Political Assassinations – of which the very distinguished Dr. Cyril Wecht served as the chair. When Lancer Publications and Productions chose to transfer their November in Dallas to CAPA, I saw the perfect opportunity for what I hoped to be a grand unification of the research community, the first such conference since the ASK conferences of the early ‘90s. My email read,
I’ve been thinking a lot about our proposed conference this coming November in Dallas.
As you know, the majority of my work over the last 15 years has been researching the research community. I’m as familiar as anyone with the divisions within the community, the history of those divisions as well as those that have bridged those divisions – Cyril chief among them. Now that Lancer has relinquished control over their conference, we have the unique opportunity to bring the community together in November for the first time since the ASK conferences of the early ’90s.
I think it would be a huge mistake and a missed opportunity to not at least consider this option, and to reach out to Judyth about creating the first unified Dallas conference in over a quarter century. Keeping the mindset of competing with other conferences simply continues the intra-community divide.
CAPA’s response was crystal clear:
There is no way to do a joint program. If we do, we will lose the Lancer crowd.
Now, I’m not a pollyanna about this sort of thing. I don’t think all of the differences within our community would be solved if overnight we chose to come together to sing “kumbaya”, but if would have at least allowed for all of us to be together, in a shared space. Ultimately, these conferences about about the speakers or the organizers or even, disappointingly, the AV crew, it’s about YOU, the attendees. You’re the ones who are yearning for the community. You’re the ones who will take this rejuvenated enthusiasm back to your own research. You’re the ones who will help spread the word of the new research. You’re the ones who will vote and keep up what I call God’s work. This is how change works. And this is why CAPA’s out-of-hand dismissal of my recommendation was so profoundly disappointing. I resigned from the board not long after that, not necessarily because of that, but it was certainly one of the major straws on the camel’s back. That is also one of the reasons that I’m at this conference, because long ago Judyth lamented that intra-community split at the conferences here in Dallas, and I truly believe that what she truly wants, ultimately, is for us all to work together as a community.
I also find it increasingly depressing and profoundly distressing to see the right/left political paradigm enter our intra-community debate. We need to remember that our research is ultimately about power, not politics. To wit, the most – and best – work done on the Reagan assassination attempt was not by a researcher on the right, but by the most liberal person I’ve ever known: the aforementioned John Judge. He’s the one who interviewed the George Washington Hospital emergency room doctors, he’s the one who secured the route of the presidential limo as well as emergency vehicles, he’s the one who studied the photographic evidence and located the second gun. In fact, he’s the one who coined the term, “the Bushy knoll.” Why did he give a damn about a conservative president? Because he recognized from the very beginning that the removal of a president is about much more than party, it’s about the machinations of power and, ultimately, the health of our democracy.
And we are all mortal.
Those were the words delivered by John Kennedy in his commencement address at American University on June 10th, 1963, less than 5 months before his murder. Known as the Peace Speech, many researchers, myself and John Judge among them, believed that speech to be the final nail in JFK’s coffin.
Beginning in 1999, John Judge held a commemoration of the speech every June 10th on the campus of American U at the Peace Speech Memorial. Most of the time it was just John and a few other interested citizens. John passed away on April 15th, 2014. A devastating loss not only to his friends, but to the research community as well. John proved his mortality, and while no one can possibly replace John, we friends and supporters felt passionate that John’s commemoration of JFK’s speech should continue. I’ve continued the commemoration on the campus of American U every year since John’s death. Most years I’m literally the only person standing there. Like some weirdo blabbering into the wind, I still go through the entire presentation. For me, it’s not only to commemorate JFK’s vision of peace, but to honor John’s pursuit of the fulfillment of that vision. I wrap it up with the following:
It’s telling that we’re standing here on the campus of an elite university in the nation’s capital, and who’s here? Just us. No students, no politicians, no press, and, most telling, no historians. John addressed this perfectly in footage I use in the opening of my film: “What died on November 22, 1963, was more than just a president. Truth was killed. Hope was killed. And a government that responded to popular movements was killed. But we in the US are what’s left of democracy in the world. We have more potential of any country to make democracy work. We have a strength that the powers in this country are afraid of. But if you want a democracy you have to make it a democracy. And the first step is to take back your history.
There have always been divisions within the research community since the day of the assassination. There are profound differences and divisions within any academic pursuit. Just come to my department at Duke to see that in action. But John understood that there were much larger and powerful forces working to sew divisions. Much of this can be found in cointel-pro documents right there in the National Archives.
In the face of such forces that want to divide us, the one thing we can’t allow to split our family are our political and philosophical differences. Let’s remember John’s work on the Reagan assassination attempt.
We must remain dedicated to working together for the truth behind the assassination, wherever that truth lies.
We must avoid the pull of the right/left paradigm.
We must hold all political leaders accountable for the release of the documents, especially now that all of the documents have reached the threshold for full and unredacted release.
We must recognize the true machinations of what Peter Dale Scott identified as “deep politics”, and avoid the pull of transient politicians co-opting the term “deep state” while not knowing what the hell that term really means.
We must remember that, as Walt Brown also stated, “[11/22/63] is the glue that holds us together.”
At the end of my film, John Judge states, “We have all the potential in the world and all the tools that we need. To envision what’s right, that’s the job of every generation. Even if we don’t think we’ll win, we must try, and by pulling together our energies and resources we – the research community – can change the world.”
In the end, if we allow our family to become divided, all is lost.
It’s up to you.