Acquilla Clemons: The black witness the Warren Commission ignored
Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly committed two murders on November 22, 1963 — and while the first will forever make him infamous, it was the second that arguably helped convict him in the court of public opinion as the lone assassin of President John F. Kennedy.
Not long after the shooting of President Kennedy, Oswald is said to have been spotted acting suspicious at the intersection of East 10th street and Patton Avenue in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas around 1 p.m CST. A patrolman, Officer J.D. Tippit, reportedly stopped him for questioning. The official story is that Oswald became irate, drew a weapon and killed Tippit in cold blood. He is then supposed to have fled the scene on foot.
He was next spotted on W. Jefferson Boulevard where he entered a movie theater (which has since become a national landmark) and was eventually apprehended by Dallas police who somewhat inexplicably already had an exact description of him as the likely killer of the president.
The logical conclusion in 1963 was that an innocent man wouldn’t have lashed out at Officer Tippit. In fact, Oswald was originally arrested and booked for killing Tippit. He was only later charged with the murder of the president.
“How do we know Oswald killed President Kennedy?” a legal aid to the Warren Commission once said. “Because he killed Officer Tippit.”
However, many key aspects of this story have always rung false, especially for those who suspect a conspiracy was behind the president’s death.
There are conflicting viewpoints about whether Tippit was shot with an automatic weapon or a revolver (which Oswald did have in his possession when he was taken into custody). The four bullets found in Tippit’s body were also a source of confusion. The lead officer on the scene of the Tippit shooting marked the shells with his initials before they were entered into evidence, yet the shells later produced by the FBI didn’t have his demarcation on them. Others have simply questioned why Oswald would have even been roaming the streets of Dallas after having allegedly pulled off the murder a sitting president.
And although the Warren Commission interviewed 13 witnesses in connection to the Tippit murder, only two said they actually saw it take place. One, Domingo Benavides, could never positively identify Oswald as the shooter, and the other, Helen Markham, was inconsistent with her descriptions. She both described Oswald accurately (thin, balding) and inaccurately (pudgy with “bushy” hair.)
Yet there was one witness, with a clear view of Tippit’s shooting, who was startlingly consistent with her story. She also happened to be African-American. Her name was Acquilla Clemons and among conspiracy theorists her testimony is legendary because it was never formally taken.
She told investigators that she saw two men at the scene of the crime from her front porch. One had a pistol and was waving the other man away. The armed man was described by Clemons as “chunky,” “short” and “kind of heavy” and the other man was “tall” and “thin,” wearing a white shirt and khakis, neither of which matched Oswald’s appearance on that fateful day.
Three of the bullets fired into Tippit were manufactured by one company (Winchester) but the fourth was made by another (Remington), an unusual occurrence which may support Clemons testimony that there were multiple shooters.
Later, Clemons claimed she received an intimidating visit from Dallas authorities warning her not to repeat what she saw.
Clemons later described the encounter in writer and investigator Mark Lane’s seminal book Rush to Judgment, a bestseller which called the Warren Commission’s conclusions into question:
Clemons: He looked like a policeman to me.
Lane: He did? Did he have a gun?
Clemons: Yes, he wore a gun.
Lane: And did he say anything to you?
Clemons: He just told me it’d be best if I didn’t say anything because I might get hurt.
Clemons was never called to tell her story before the Warren Commission, which refused to even acknowledge her existence in the numerous volumes of their final report. In fact their findings, which still stand as the official record, suggest there was only “one female witness” to the killing of J.D. Tippit.
There may be doubts about whether there was a conspiracy and whether of not Lee Harvey Oswald was involved, but we do know that Acquilla Clemons most certainly a living, breathing human being and her story deserve to heard and investigated.
Follow Adam Howard on Twitter at @at_howard