With former President Bill Clinton’s library about to open, the Little Rock Rotary Club decided last week to invite a speaker who helped show the world the tragic and mysterious thing that happened to a president 41 years ago.
Willie Allen, who grew up in North Little Rock, was a young photographer for the United Press International news agency in Dallas when President John F. Kennedy came to Texas Nov. 22, 1963. Kennedy wasn’t really popular in Texas, and Allen said that Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas told Kennedy that he shouldn’t make the trip, but he did.
Allen’s first assignment was to photograph the president when he got off his plane and made a speech in Fort Worth. He rushed back to UPI’s offices in downtown Dallas, developed the pictures and sent them as wire photos. His next assignment was to photograph the president’s motorcade as it drove through downtown Dallas, which was a couple of blocks from the UPI office. As Allen left the office, his boss shouted to him, “There’s been a homicide over there!”
He ran into the turmoil, and learned that it was the president who was shot and had been rushed to the hospital. Allen started making pictures at the grassy mound and the outside of the Texas School Book Depository where some suspicious transients were standing. “We later learned that at that time Lee Harvey Oswald [a depository employee], was still in the building.” Allen told the Rotarians. Hours later, when the police had searched the building and found Oswald’s rifle, Allen and other journalists were allowed to go inside up to the sixth floor, where he made pictures that went around the world of the window where Oswald had fired his rifle.
Finally, Oswald was caught after he had killed a Dallas policeman and hidden in a movie theater. He was taken to a jail in the basement of the Dallas City Hall. Two days later he was to be transferred to the county jail. Because UPI didn’t expect anything would happen in this change of jails, the photographers decided to draw straws to see who would go to City Hall. Bob Jackson, a Dallas Times Herald photographer, went to City Hall, Allen stood on the street outside the jail and the other cameraman went to the county jail.
TV photographers dominated the crowded basement of the jail. When Oswald was brought out they yelled at him, “Did you shoot the president?” At that moment, Jack Ruby, who ran a cheap night club down-town and often loafed around newspaper offices, lunged at Oswald and shot him point-blank. Oswald died a few hours later. Jackson, using a 35mm camera, had time only to squeeze off five frames and was afraid that none of them told the story. Allen developed the film for him. Only one frame, the third, showed what the TV cameras had shown live — Ruby firing the gun and Oswald grimacing. Jackson’s picture won the Pulitzer Prize.
“I had been working three days without going to bed,” Allen told the Rotarians. “But that night my boss told me that a reporter was going to go to Ruby’s apartment and that I should go with him and make some pictures.” The police had searched the place, tossing papers and throwing clothes onto the floor, and Allen made several pictures that were printed in many newspapers. There were three men in the apartment — one was Ruby’s lawyer — besides Allen and the reporter, Jim Koetge.
Not long after that, Allen and his wife moved back to Arkansas and formed Willie Allen Productions in North Little Rock. But about five years after he left Dallas, one of his Texas friends called him and said that a Texas magazine had printed a story about the murder of the president that said that the conspirators in the crime were those five men who were in Ruby’s apartment that night. The story also said they were “marked for death.”
Allen wasn’t alarmed until his Dallas friend told him that he, Allen, was the last of the five who was still alive. The caller said that the reporter and one other had been brutally murdered, but he didn’t know how the other two had died. Allen said he slept with his rifle by the bed for months.
A Rotarian asked Allen if he thought Chief Justice Earl Warren’s 10-month investigative committee was correct in deciding that Oswald killed the president alone because “of his deep-rooted resentment of all authority.” Allen said no, that he believes the investigation was too short. He also said he thought it was possible that Fidel Castro might have had something to do with it. “It seemed impossible for only one person to do what Oswald did,” he said. And he thinks it was strange that the police ever let someone like Jack Ruby into the basement when they were moving a suspected murderer.
In the late 1970s a Select Committee of the House of Representatives raised many questions about the assassination, but no decisions were made. In 1993, most historians finally decided that Oswald did the murder alone when writer Gerald Posner published his book, “Case Closed.”
Newspaper photographers never get much money or attention. I know because I got my first job as one in the 1940s. In 1957, a guy named Will Counts learned it when he made the best pictures of the desegregation of Little Rock's Central High School.