(Editor’s Note: This year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. ECM Political Editor Howard Lestrud, an avid JFK item collector for more than 50 years, is writing a series of articles on Kennedy leading up to the assassination observance in November. In this sixth segment, Pulitzer prize-winner Robert Jackson is featured in a set of two stories that discuss, first, his hobby-turned-career and his subsequent photography assignment on Nov. 22, 1963, and, second, the day he took the historic picture of the shooting of the alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.)
by Howard Lestrud
ECM Political Editor
Knowing one’s photography equipment and what you can do with it has much to do with whether a photograph will be an award winner, said Robert “Bob” Jackson, Pulitzer Prize winner.
Luck is also involved in taking spot, or breaking, news photos, explained Jackson, who was 29 in 1963 when he took one of the most highly regarded photos of history, that of the alleged assassin of President John F. Kennedy being shot and killed by Jack Ruby on live television.
Jackson recently granted an exclusive interview to ECM Publishers about the events of the Nov. 22nd weekend in 1963.
Fifty years later, Jackson, of Manitou Springs, Colo., is participating in panel discussions about the assassination of the nation’s 35th president. Jackson will be in Dallas the weekend of Nov. 22, when the city of Dallas is sponsoring a public event, “The 50th: Honoring the Memory of President John F. Kennedy.”
Kennedy was assassinated by a single gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, said The Warren Commission, an investigating body appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to assemble findings on the assassination and related events.
Photographer and witness
Jackson, then a general beat photographer for the Dallas Times Herald, covered the arrival of Kennedy and first lady Jackie Kennedy at Love Field in Dallas and followed them on the motorcade traveling Dallas streets. Jackson took photos of the Kennedys as they worked a crowd at the airport, and he then photographed well-wishers on the motorcade route minutes later. Jackson, while between rolls of film, witnessed a rifle being pulled back from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository Building, allegedly the sniper’s perch of the named assassin.
Following a hectic day on Friday, Nov. 22, Jackson was given the day off on Nov. 23.
He was on duty again for Sunday – “very fortunate to be the Sunday person,” Jackson said – when he had an assignment to cover the transfer of Oswald from the Dallas Police Department to the Dallas County Jail.
Jackson actually had two assignments that day. The second one was to cover Nellie Connally’s press conference after the transfer of Oswald. Connally and her husband, Texas Gov. John Connally, were passengers with the Kennedys in the presidential limousine the day of the assassination. Gov. Connally was seriously wounded. Nellie Connally and Jackie Kennedy were not injured.
Connally’s press conference was set for 10:30 a.m. and the transfer of Oswald was to be at 9:30 a.m.
As the time ticked past 9:30, Jackson and others of the media became impatient as they waited in the police department basement. A call was placed to the city desk to learn the reason of the delay.
“It became apparent they were not in any hurry,” Jackson recalled.
Jackson’s superiors still wanted him to cover the Connally press conference, but Jackson said he was not leaving his spot in the basement. Jackson urged the Times Herald to use Willie Allen of United Press International to cover the Connally conference.
Ruby shoots Oswald
Word then came to the media that the police were to move Oswald in five minutes. He was to be transported in an unmarked car, brought into the basement via the ramp from outside.
“I had to watch so they didn’t run over me as I leaned on the car fender,” Jackson said.
Jackson said he prefocused his camera to a little more than 10 feet.
“‘Here he comes,’ somebody yelled and then somebody stepped out from my right and was going to block my view,” Jackson said.
The obstacle was Jack Ruby, Dallas night club owner.
“He took two steps and fired, and I fired,” Jackson related. This all happened at 11:21 a.m.
“It just came together better than I could have planned,” Jackson said. “If I would have known” what was going to happen, “I might have missed it,” he said.
Jackson wound his camera and shot again. He remembers a police officer pushing him back and putting his hand over Jackson’s camera.
“I told him to get his hand off my camera. I could see he was upset.”
Jackson had no place to go after police officers wrestled Ruby to the floor. The unmarked car was taken out and an ambulance was brought into the basement. Oswald was brought out on a stretcher, and Jackson snapped some photos of Oswald on the stretcher.
With no cellphones in 1963, Jackson found a phone and called fellow photographer John Mazziotta, who asked Jackson what he had for photos. “‘I think I have some good pictures,’ I told him,” Jackson said.
Mazziotta told Jackson that United Press International was “screaming” for his film and said the newspaper would send a runner to pick up the film.
“‘There’s no way I will give the film to a runner, what happens if he gets hit by a bus?’” Jackson told Mazziotta.
Jackson stayed at the Dallas police station until 2 p.m., when he was relieved by another photographer.
When Jackson arrived at the Times Herald, he was shown the wire machine and asked if he had anything as good as a photo taken by Jack Beers of the Dallas Morning News. This photo showed Ruby about to fire his .38 pistol at Oswald.
“‘I will let you know when I run my film,’” Jackson told his colleagues. “My worry was whether I pushed the button before the bullet entered his body,” Jackson said.
Jackson entered the darkroom to develop his film while Massiotta waited outside.
“I let out a yell after putting the film to light, seeing what I had,” Jackson said.
He then made a wet print and carried the 11-by-14 print into the newsroom.
“It was a hard picture to print because of the dark suits and the dark gun,” Jackson said.
Jackson said he had to “burn” in, or darken, the back of Ruby’s hand. Jackson is the only person who has ever printed the photo from the negative. He currently keeps it in a safety deposit box.
“We knew we had beat the Dallas Morning News; that was an exciting Sunday,” Jackson said.
“I did go home with a headache, however,” he added.
Jim Chambers of the Times Herald negotiated with United Press International and the Associated Press for the rights to the Jackson photo. The Times Herald would not release the photo to the UPI or AP until the Times Herald had hit the streets of Texas at 11 a.m. the next day.
“Nobody in Texas saw the photo until Monday,” Jackson said.
After the news
Jackson did receive a bonus for his prized photo. Each wire service reportedly wrote $1,000 checks, unheard of in those days, Jackson said. The newspaper also gave Jackson the rights to the photo.
Jackson received the Pulitzer Prize in May 1964. A certificate and check for $1,000 was mailed to him. No presentation ceremony was held. Now, Pulitzer photo winners receive $10,000 at a special ceremony.
The Warren Commission called Jackson as a witness. He testified mainly about seeing a rifle pulled from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository building on Nov. 22.
Jackson said he believes Oswald acted alone.
“I always have had an open mind to a conspiracy that someone put him up there,” Jackson said.
“He (Oswald) was a nut case – Ruby, too,” Jackson added. “Ruby was hotheaded, loved Kennedy and didn’t want Jackie to come to Dallas for a trial.”
Following his time at the Times Herald, Jackson worked for the Denver Post and the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph. He retired from the Gazette in 1999. Jackson has three daughters and two sons from his wife Debbie’s previous marriage and a son with Debbie. He also has 10 grandchildren.
Howard Lestrud can be reached at [email protected].
(Earlier in this series: The first in this series was on Mike Freeman, Hennepin County Attorney, and his father, Orville Freeman, Secretary of Agriculture under Kennedy. In the second segment, Lestrud talked to former Dallas Police Detective James R. Leavelle, the man handcuffed to Lee Harvey Oswald when Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby. In the third segment, Lestrud discussed the upcoming special observances planned for Nov. 22 by the city of Dallas and by the Sixth Floor Museum. In the fourth installment, former Isanti County resident Jack Puterbaugh shared his story of being in the president’s motorcade during the shooting. Judge John Tunheim of Stillwater talked about the work of the Assassination Records Review Board in the fifth in the series.)