Like all Baby Boomers, Michael Kurtz remembers exactly where he was when President John F. Kennedy was shot.
The future Southeastern Louisiana University history professor and Kennedy assassination scholar was a graduate student at the University of Tennessee on November 22, 1963. "I happened to be sick that day and was in the university health center," he recalled. "They had the radio on...."
Kurtz shared the worldwide shock at the gunning down of America's vibrant young president. It was not until several years later, however, during New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison's highly-controversial prosecution of businessman Clay Shaw for conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy, that Kurtz began his career-long examination of what he terms "the Crime of the Century."
Forty years after Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Kurtz, dean of graduate studies at Southeastern, is the author of the 1993 book, "Crime of the Century: The Kennedy Assassination from a Historian's Perspective," as well as articles on the subject in journals such as "The Historian" and "Louisiana History." For the past 30 years, he has taught a senior-level elective course on the assassination, in addition to his many lectures, media interviews, and panel appearances on the assassination. On previous assassination anniversaries, his expertise has been tapped for retrospectives filmed by CBS's "48 Hours" and Nova.
Kurtz currently is researching and writing a new study of the assassination, "Conflict and Consensus in the JFK Assassination Debates," due to be published next year by the University Press of Kansas. And on the November 22, 2003, he will participate in a national academic conference on the assassination sponsored by the Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law and the Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh.
When Garrison's investigation was headlining the news in 1967, "I just started reading books about the assassination," Kurtz said. "Practically everybody brought up what I considered to be very important points criticizing the Warren Commission's conclusion that Oswald did it all by himself. I started doing more research, and thought this would be a very interesting topic for a historian to study.
"I didn't have a preconceived opinion to begin with," he said. " I just wanted to find out, just as any historian does with any topic, just what was the truth."
On the first day of the course that he teaches to approximately 40 students each fall, Kurtz flatly states that he cannot -- nor, he maintains, can anyone -- authoritatively answer "Who killed JFK?"
"When I started doing my research in the late sixties and early seventies, it was already evident that a lot of material was being covered up and that some material had already been destroyed," Kurtz said. "In the absence of complete documentation you can't come up with a final answer."
His research, however, has led him to conclude that the assassination was a conspiracy and that more than one gunman fired at the Kennedy motorcade that day in Dallas's Dealey Plaza. He also feels that Cuba and organized crime are the most likely culprits behind the assassination.
Kurtz's research includes primary evidence in the National Archives, the Warren Commission volumes and report, related CIA and FBI documents, the documents of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, and personal interviews with subjects such as Dr. Robert Shaw, the thoracic surgeon who operated on Texas Gov. John Connally, who was also shot that infamous day.
"Dr. Shaw had been the chief of thoracic surgery for the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II, so he knew what he was talking about," Kurtz said. "He stated very emphatically that it was impossible for that single bullet to have gone through Kennedy and then through Connally and to have caused all those wounds."
That kind of expert testimony, examination of the famous Zapruder film in which Kurtz says that Kennedy's movements indicate a shot coming from the right front, the curiously intact condition of the bullet that supposedly struck both Kennedy and Connally, as well as "the fact that it's been covered up so much all these years," all spell conspiracy, Kurtz believes.
"If Oswald did it all by himself as just a lone nut, there's no reason for national security or anything else to cover up anything in the case. But there has been a massive cover-up," Kurtz said. "Cuba and organized crime certainly are two of the biggest suspects," Kurtz said. "It's also quite possible that certain individuals connected with the CIA, Secret Service, and FBI could have participated in a conspiracy to kill Kennedy as well. There were certain individuals who participated in many things, such as the CIA-Mafia assassination plots against Castro. These people wanted desperately to cover up their actions and in so doing helped to cover up what was going on with the assassination."
"I think the polls have shown over the years that the American people instinctively know that there's been a cover up and that there must have been a conspiracy," Kurtz said. "The key question is who put them up to it."
"I think I'm still very fascinated by it because it's unsolved. It remains a mystery," Kurtz said.
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Crime of the Century: The Kennedy Assassination from a Historian's Perspective