Though John F. Kennedy’s death took place decades before they were born, at least one group of local millennials journeyed on a five-month project to go deep into the weeds about the shooting that November 1963 day and come to their own conclusions.
From January to May of this year, just over a dozen American University students enrolled in the government course “Who Killed Kennedy” investigated the 50-year-old murder investigation of the death of the 35th president of the United States and added a 21st century perspective to the cacophony surrounding this debate.
“Within our generation, there’s a big push to understand what would have happened if Kennedy would have finished office,” said Payne Griffin, an American University sophomore and designer of the class website, whokilledjfk.org.
The young students’ curiosity speaks to the lasting power of unanswered questions and controversies that surround the assassination narrative to this day. Still, a majority of the students in the class acknowledge they were unaware of many of the basic details when they began the class.
“I was not very informed at all,” Mr. Griffin said. “I knew the major players … but I didn’t know as much of the story behind it.”
Kristen Pulkstenis, a junior majoring in law and society at the Northwest Washington school, had been interested in the Kennedy assassination for some time, but even she admits that she entered the class believing that the Soviet Union had something to do with the assassination, one of the most potent conspiracy theories that still cling to the assassination.
Mr. Griffin said most of the students enrolled in the course merely to gain a broader understanding of this largely mysterious and increasingly distant historical event
The class was an honors course, designed primarily by AU professor Donald Fulsom.
Mr. Fulsom was a White House correspondent from the Johnson through the Clinton administrations, and he remembers very well the events of November 1963. The strong memories, he said, made him intent on exposing his students to the controversy that has loomed over the president’s death since.
Throughout the semester, a number of people who have focused on the details surrounding Kennedy’s assassination came in to speak with the class. They included Dan Moldea, an investigative journalist who has extensively researched organized crime throughout the 1960s; Robert Blakey, a top official in the House Select Committee on Assassinations from 1977 to 1979; and Hollywood director Oliver Stone, creator of the film “JFK,” which ww many of the doubts about the official version of what happened in Dallas when it was released in 1991.
The curriculum went deep into the weeds, exploring the “Magic Bullet Theory,” the “Winnipeg Airport Incident,” and the “Carlos Marcello Connection,” among other popular conspiratorial obsessions.
After each speaker, the students would document how their opinions on the leading perpetrators in the assassination changed.
At the beginning of the course, 64 percent of the students were convinced that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the assassination. By the end of the project, 44 percent of the students believed that Oswald and the Mafia were jointly responsible for Kennedy’s murder. Just 12 percent at the end believed Oswald acted alone.
“We’d get all these educated individuals and they’d all give a different and perfectly logical explanation for what they believed occurred,” Ms. Pulkstenis said. “It’s easy to believe that you could solve all the problems if you have all the evidence … but with this assassination it’s impossible.”
Mr. Griffin said that the biggest surprise for him in this project was the large number of unanswered or contested questions that still cling to the case. Ms. Pulkstenis said that uncertainty relates directly to “the level we can trust our current government, especially with increased secrecy.”
For the students, this project not only altered their view of the transparency and openness of their own government, but also their view of academics.
Ms. Pulkstenis notes how much of her educational experience was rooted in intellectual absolutes — with very few questions about the validity of details. This class project shattered that unquestioning trust.
“Growing up, sitting in math class, two plus two equaled four every time,” Ms. Pulkstenis said. “This course, however, confronted me with a problem which had an answer that we just couldn’t find.”