Though the tall professor hulks over the lectern as if he were attempting to shove down a new foundation for the building, he speaks of the mundane: “The final exam is coming up before you know it.”
Then, Michael L. Kurtz begins to talk about Lee Harvey Oswald’s mysterious trip to Mexico City. He tells of a city that in the early 1960s was a center of espionage for the hemisphere.
In the classroom, heads that had appeared to have had insufficient caffeine for a morning class begin to rise. A coed who has been writing checks stops to listen.
Kurtz talks of Oswald’s visits to the Soviet Embassy. He talks of “an Oswald imposter.” He speaks, too, of Oswald’s “ties with intelligence operations.”
As Kurtz spins a tale of Oswald’s “double life,” a hand jumps up, then another.
Soon Kurtz’s lecture gets derailed. Students are asking questions — intelligent questions. The earlier semblance of a normal undergraduate class gets spirited away by the kind of earnest discussion expected in a graduate seminar.
That may be fitting, since Kurtz, who just published “The JFK Assassination Debates,” is also dean of Southeastern Louisiana University’s Graduate School.
Kurtz has been teaching the John F. Kennedy assassination course for more than 30 years and has never lacked for students, said Christina Chapple, an SLU spokeswoman.
Some things about the students have changed, Kurtz concedes. Unlike his first students, today’s students would only laugh if asked where they were when they heard JFK had been shot. They hadn’t been born when a still-debated number of shots were fired on Nov. 22, 1963.
Kurtz said he now has to spend time explaining to his students the naiveté with which most people viewed their government at the time of Kennedy’s assassination.
What hasn’t changed, Kurtz said in an interview, is students’ fascination with the multitude of mysteries surrounding that day in Dallas and subsequent days of “cover-up” and “abuse of power” by those wanting to conceal the truth.
Kurtz rips into failures and “deliberate distortion” by the Warren Commission in its subsequent investigation of the assassination.
He talks of the seeds of change that the Kennedy assassination and its investigation sowed in the minds of Americans, who, at the time, generally had an unwavering trust in their government. In coming years, those seeds would be watered and fertilized by the Vietnam War, Watergate and other events, the historian says.
As he navigates the numerous conspiracy theories and the idea of a single gunman acting on his own, Kurtz sometimes articulates his personal beliefs, but usually points them out as such.
Most of his students come away with a theory about the JFK assassination, but those theories usually are more tempered and realistic than the ones they brought with them to class, Kurtz said.
But, as he warns his students in the first session of the course, when they put down their pencils at the end of the semester they still won’t know with certainty what happened in Dealey Plaza 43 years ago today.
I will definitely be checking out Professor Kurtz's new book, The JFK Assassination Debates.
I read a very interesting book a few years ago on the subject, titled Passport to Assassination. I highly recommend it.