Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Kennedy Assassination and Its Sad, Destructive Impact

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below, I describe the corrosive impact of John F. Kennedy's assassination on subsequent American politics.

President Kennedy decided to visit Texas in order to mend a deep rift between the state’s Democratic Gov. John Connally, an ally and friend of Vice President Lyndon Johnson, and the Lone Star State’s liberal Sen. Ralph Yarborough. Many Kennedy aides worried about the two-day political mission. The trip included stopovers in Texas’ largest cities including a visit to Dallas, a city that had acquired a reputation as a haven of right-wing crackpots.

Oilman H.L. Hunt called Dallas home. Hunt called democracy a communist plot and funded an archconservative radio program called LIFELINE, which denounced the United Nations as a Soviet conspiracy. Former Army General Edwin Walker, fired by the Kennedy administration for distributing far-right literature from the anti-communist John Birch Society to his troops, also called Dallas home, as did one of the South’s few Republican congressmen, Bruce Alger, who took great pride in the fact that he voted against a federal school milk program.

Uncertain of carrying Texas in the 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy sent his running mate Lyndon Johnson to make an appearance in Dallas in the closing days of the race. On November 4, Johnson and his wife Lady Bird appeared at the Adolphus Hotel in downtown Dallas for a speech. After the speech the pair were assaulted by a well-dressed mob led by Alger. Calling LBJ “Late Blooming Judas” because of his role in passing the 1957 civil rights bill, the hostile throng spat upon the Johnsons, and pulled on Lady Bird’s hair and clothes.

Less than a month before JFK’s visit, another reactionary mob, including Edwin Walker, spat upon United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson after he made an October 26, 1963 speech to the Dallas Council on World Affairs marking United Nations Day. The protestors rocked Stevenson’s limousine back and forth before a driver finally managed to race the ambassador to safety. Dallas’ business leaders feared that another embarrassing incident like the assault on Stevenson would be a fatal blow to the city’s international image, prompting Mayor Earle Cabell to beg Dallas’ citizens to give the president a friendly reception. The police received orders to "spot any agitator quickly and . . . remove him before trouble could start."

After stops in San Antonio, Houston and Fort Worth, Kennedy arrived in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Fearing trouble, Dallas officials at first felt relief when a crowd of a quarter of a million people triple-lined the streets along the presidential motorcade route. Kennedy received a "rip-roaring hell-bent-for-election Western-style welcome,” wrote Jim Bishop, a chronicler of the assassination.

Riding in a limousine with the top removed so Dallas could get a better look at the president and the first lady, Kennedy smiled broadly at the crowd and waved right up until the moment the car passed the School Book Depository near the triple underpass in downtown Dallas. Three shots rang out, with bullets hitting Kennedy in the neck and, fatally, in the head. Rushed to Dallas’ Parkland Hospital, Kennedy was soon declared dead. Instead of a right-winger, police arrested Lee Harvey Oswald, an employee of the Book Depository and a self-styled leftist who supported Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba and defected briefly to the Soviet Union before returning to a life of loneliness and frustration in Texas. Oswald himself would be assassinated by a Dallas nightclub owner with organized crime ties, Jack Ruby, who claimed he murdered the suspect out of respect and sorrow for the president’s widow, Jackie Kennedy.

The Kennedy assassination marked a signal violent moment in what would be a violent decade. The president’s murder, and the rapid killing of his suspected assassin, spawned a host of conspiracy theories that blamed the Russians, the Cubans, the Mafia (angered by Bobby Kennedy’s work as a lawyer for a Senate committee investigating organized crime in the 1950s), Teamsters Union boss Jimmy Hoffa (jailed for corruption after prosecution by the Kennedy administration), and even Vice President Johnson. The new president, seeking to quell suspicions, appointed a blue-ribbon panel chaired by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren and including future President Gerald Ford, then a congressman from Michigan, to investigate the assassination. The Warren Commission concluded that Oswald acted alone, but a large percentage of the population continued to doubt the official government version of events.

In the decade that followed Kennedy’s death, a period that would see government lies about the Vietnam War exposed and the revelations about the Watergate scandal during the Nixon administration, the assassination in Dallas ushered in an era of cynicism. “Fatalism flourished,” wrote one-time student activist Todd Gitlin. “[T]he power of the will to prod history in the right direction was blunted. One common conclusion was that even the steadiest of institutions, the august presidency, was fragile indeed . . . The Warren Commission Report, released on September 27, 1964, was shoddy enough, but something else was operating to discredit it; a huge cultural disbelief that an event so traumatic and vast in its consequence could be accounted for by a petty assassin.”


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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