Sunday, June 19, 2011

Through a Glass Darkly: Memory, Race, and Region in Dallas, Texas

In 2006, the University of Texas Press published my first book, "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001." In this passage I began my discussion on why historians for so long ignored Dallas, Texas as a topic.

To historians, Dallas remains the undiscovered country. The city's racial dynamic features such complexity that the topic should have long ago interested scholars. To date only one book, journalist Jim Schutze’s 1986 work The Accommodation: The Politics of Race in an American City, attempted a comprehensive view of racial issues in Dallas, and even that is a simplified model of black-white conflict in which Schutze renders the city’s Mexican American community invisible. Schutze's fellow journalists, cut off from larger intellectual trends in the social sciences, have produced most book-length studies on Dallas.

Such writers shied away from analyzing how ideologies of race, gender and class shaped the city. The result is endless debates on trivia, such as who Dallas was named after, while substantial issues like power and wealth distribution are left neglected.
Too small in the 1860s and 1870s to merit extensive consideration in histories of the Civil War and Reconstruction, too Southern to be placed in the context of the great labor battles of the late nineteenth century, and too Western to be incorporated into monographs on the Southern desegregation struggle in the mid-twentieth century, Dallas stands as a postmodern Potemkin Village — a façade behind which nothing stands.

Set against the image of brutal Southern sheriffs and angry mobs in other communities, the often quiet, more private freedom struggles in Dallas faded from view, moving one Dallas historian, W. Marvin Dulaney, to pose the question, "Whatever happened to the civil rights movement in Dallas, Texas?"

Judging from American history texts, even those focused on the South and the Southwest, one might believe the answer to Dulaney’s question is nothing much. Dallas does not merit a single mention in Taylor Branch’s massive 1,064-page study of the Civil Rights Movement, "Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63."

Robert Weisbrot, in his 1990 monograph "Freedom Bound: A History of America’s Civil Rights Movement," tells the Dallas story in a paragraph: "The sit-ins reached Dallas only in 1961, but white leaders adjusted with astonishing rapidity and goodwill, desegregating forty stores and major hotels with minimal resistance," he writes. The city then takes a polite bow and exits Weisbrot’s narrative. Even when an author broadens the topic, Dallas maintains its invisibility. A photo of the famous Dallas skyline graces the cover of John Boles' 569-page "The South Through Time: A History of an American Region," but the city appears nowhere in the index.

Logically, Dallas should present a tantalizing target for academics. For much of the twentieth century, Dallas represented the second largest metropolis in the former Confederacy. The city claimed one of the largest African American populations in the United States (with the 12th highest percentage of African Americans of major American cities in 1990). The city also had the 15th highest percentage of Hispanics among major metropolitan areas (15.1 percent in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in 1996).

The prominent position of a small but activist Jewish population in city politics and business starting in the 1870s and an influx of immigrants from Southeast Asia in the 1970s and 1980s adds more dimensions to the city's diversity. Dallas, with its ambiguous geographic position on the hinge of the South, the West, and the Mexican borderlands, provides a fascinating opportunity for historians to consider not just race and ethnicity, but the formation of regional identities as well.

Dallas yearly ranks as one of the region’s economic powerhouses. At different times, the Dallas-Fort Worth area represented a financial center for the cotton industry, the turf of oil barons, a regional banking capital, a center of high-tech firms such as Ross Perot’s Electronic Data Systems, and the home base of the aviation mega-power American Airlines. Several firms relocated to Dallas after World War II, bringing a migration of highly trained, technically skilled Easterners and Midwesterners with no cultural or political ties to traditional Dixiecrat politics, thus anticipating the emergence of a trans-regional Sunbelt in the 1970s and 1980s.

The political realignment of the South, in which one-party rule by an ultraconservative, segregationist Democratic party gave way to an ascendant, increasingly racist Republican Party, began in Dallas, eventually choking off the gains made by the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

Dallas' churches played a substantial role in this transformation. W.A. Criswell's First Baptist Church provided leadership and critical support for television evangelist Jerry Falwell's right-wing Moral Majority organization in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Criswell's church also served as the headquarters for the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination and became a key backer of the GOP in what had been a Democratic city.

"To say that First Baptist had a high identity with the Republican Party is to say that fish have a high identity with the ocean," Joel Gregory, a one-time minister at the church, wrote. Starting in Dallas, a solid axis formed between an increasingly reactionary Republican Party and politically active Christian conservatives, a marriage that dominated American politics in the last two decades of the twentieth century.

Dallas' unique geographical position, its place as a major American city and its importance in national political and religious life, should have spawned a lively tradition of serious scholarship. Dallas' academic neglect, however, represents amnesia by design. An obsessively image-conscious city, Dallas elites feared that a conflict-marred past filled with class and racial strife represented a dangerous model for the future. City leaders transformed the community into a laboratory of forgetfulness.

Throughout its past, Dallas' leaders faced a series of pitched battles for political supremacy with a long line of dissenters. In each case, elites ultimately prevailed, but they controlled official memory more completely than they did the city's populace. In place of history, a myth of consensus arose in which a white male elite, ruling for the good of the "city as a whole," created a community "with no reason for being" as an act of macho will. Past acts of political resistance contradicting this storyline got cast into an Orwellian memory hole. This Origin Myth justifies a continued political dominance by white business elites and insinuates that African Americans, Mexican Americans and others directly challenging the city's power structure are embarking on a dangerous deviation from past success.

Rather than dealing with the messiness of the past, many opinion makers in Dallas chose to pretend the city had no history. In 1999, Dallas Morning News reporter Bryan Woolley glanced at decades past and found little worth recalling. "Until 1963 and that fateful day in Dealey Plaza [when President John Kennedy was assassinated], the history of Dallas had been a quiet one . . . ," Woolley wrote. "No bloody Alamo battle had been fought in it . . . The cowboys and gunslingers of the frontier era had preferred Fort Worth. Dallas had Bonnie and Clyde, and that was about it in the way of historical drama."

The unimportance of the past lay at the heart of the city’s self-image, argues Harvey Graff, a history professor formerly at the University of Texas at Dallas. "Dallas has no history — no reason to exist," he wrote, mocking the Origin Myth. "Residents and visitors are told this incessantly . . . Dallas fears its own past, fears history in general, as threats to its present and possible futures . . ." To Dallas elites, Graff writes, history "suggests . . . an anchor of corpses whose recognition and admittance might drag as a deadweight against the unlimited rise of the city on the southern prairies."” In addition, Dallas remains marked by the lasting trauma of the Kennedy assassination, which "stimulates a desire to escape from, transcend, and leave behind — all of course impossible without real loss and great costs — the city’s . . . history."

If city leaders insisted that Dallas’ past was an irrelevant, unhealthy impediment to the future, this did not stop them from nurturing a mythology of ceaseless progress. The city’s first "historian," newspaper editor, author, state legislator, mayor of Galveston and then of Dallas, John Henry Brown, began this dominant Whiggish tradition in Dallas historiography. Starting with Brown's "History of Dallas County, Texas: From 1837 to 1887," such "boosters" portrayed the city’s history as beginning with the arrival of John Neely Bryan, the first Anglo settler, in 1841.

This narrative thus erases some 14,000 years of Native American history in the Dallas area. Dallas emerged, Brown said, when the first Texans conquered not only Indians, but Mexicans, "a nation of mixed blooded people, who had been held, for three hundred years, in abject subjection to a foreign, absolute monarchy . . ."

Brown already fully articulated a central feature in Dallas mythology, that whites represented progress and that people of color represented savagery. In the twentieth century, local historians continued to use race as one explanation for the success of white colonizers in Dallas. "The Anglo-Saxon element, which penetrated the North East section of Texas, was of the same strain as King Alfred the Great, who wrote the charter of English liberty, and of the same blood that coursed through the veins of Oliver Cromwell," wrote one Dallas chronicler, Mattie Jacoby Allen.

Allen, like Brown, saw liberty as grounded in whiteness. Allen described independence as innate in the conquering Anglo-Saxons. "These pioneers, who blazed the way into a savage and unfriendly country . . . relied on . . . the physical strength which they possessed, and their own individualism."

Brown’s themes were reiterated 22 years later by the second major local historian, prominent attorney Philip Lindsley. In his 1909 work "A History of Greater Dallas and Vicinity," Lindsley described the Anglo conquest of Texas in 1836 as "the reassertion of the inherent superiority of the Anglo-Saxon over the Latin races." The hatred of "oppression and misrule" and "the universal longing for freedom" all derived from Anglo-Saxon racial traits, Lindsley argued.

The city’s earliest chroniclers, like Brown and Lindsley, crafted most elements of the city’s Origin Myth. A fertile land lay wasted in the hands of colored peoples. A group of brave and determined white businessmen took the crude but favorable elements and fashioned from them a meritocracy on the plains. With Fortune magazine’s publication of Holland McComb’s 1949 article "The Dydamic [sic] Men of Dallas," the Ur text of the Dallas Origin Myth, the Dallas Citizens Council (a cabal of business leaders who call the political shots behind the scenes) transformed into a collection of almost supernatural demigods.

Dallas, McCombs’ Fortune article declared, should never have been a city. Dallas "sat astride no natural routes of trade." Yet, McCombs declared, Dallas was the "Athens of the Southwest, the undisputed leader of finance, insurance, distribution, culture, and fashion for this land of the super-Americans . . ."

There was nothing Dallas business leaders could not do, according to McCombs. "Everything in Dallas is bigger and better; the parties are plushier, the buildings more air-conditioned, the women better dressed, and the girls more fetching," he gushed. "And in all of these things it is, finally, a monument to sheer determination. Dallas doesn’t owe a thing to accident, nature, or inevitability. It is what it is — even to the girls — because the men of Dallas damn well planned it that way." To McCombs, non-whites lacked any role in making Dallas, as did women, who appear as the passive creation of male ambition.

McCombs tells a good story, but it’s fantasy. Business demigods did not magically summon Dallas from the prairie. Dallas' early white immigrants found the area ideally located atop potential riches. In 1843, just two years after the town's founding, the Houston Telegraph and Texas Register predicted that Dallas "will soon be one of the most desirable situations of Texas, and . . . the center of flourishing settlements."

City founder John Neely Bryan built his cabin near a natural ford crossing the Trinity River called Kikapo Trace, which was earmarked as part of a military road the Texas Republic planned from Austin to the Red River. Native Americans and buffalo had so often used the ford that the banks had worn down on both sides of the river. The land readily leant itself to agriculture. Martin A. Gauldin, a visitor to Dallas in 1845, said "The prairies is the richest looking soil I ever saw . . . This country has plenty of water and mill priveledges [sic]." Contrary to the legend, from the beginning Dallas was the logical place for an important commercial settlement.

A myth concocted mostly by journalists became part of municipal propaganda. A flyer for a 1985 bond issue boldly proclaimed on its cover, "There is no real reason for a place called DALLAS. No harbor drew people here, no oceans, no mountains, no great natural beauty. Yet . . . people made out of Dallas what it is today: the shining city of the Sunbelt, a city of opportunity, a great place in which to live and work." It seemed foolish to challenge an undeniable, almost miraculous record of success, and Dallas oligarchs undoubtedly hoped the myth would head off any challenge to their rule.

The Origin Myth and its view of the past as unremitting progress rarely acknowledged the high human costs of conquest and development. If this narrative makes for poor history, however, at least it is coherent. It remains a more-than-twice told tale broadly disseminated through the Dallas Morning News, Chamber of Commerce brochures and tourist pamphlets. For the most part, even harsh critics of Dallas' leadership accepted that white elites alone determined the course of Dallas history. Non-elites were simply the passive victims or beneficiaries of elite actions.

If McCombs praised the Citizens Council as unified and efficient, Warren Leslie, a former reporter and executive at the Neiman-Marcus department store, in his 1964 book "Dallas Public and Private," charged that the DCC represented government "by private club." Written in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, Leslie's book asserted that Dallas society held a violent, oppressive side, but the author allowed for the possibility of reform. "Nothing in Dallas will change tomorrow, or even soon after that," Leslie wrote. " . . .[but the] Citizens Council is reassessing itself to see whether or not a business elite is the best ruling group, or whether the good minds of the city, unaccompanied by money, should be asked to supply a conscience to the cash."

Unfortunately, as the closing comments to Leslie’s book indicate, he could only conceive of reform generated by the white, all-male ruling bloc. The population outside the corporate boardrooms remained as voiceless in Leslie’s nightmare vision as in McCombs’ puffery.

Former Dallas Times Herald reporter Jim Schutze’s "The Accommodation" gives marginal Dallasites a voice, but ends up partly blaming the victims of Dallas’ racial and class hierarchies for their oppression. Schutze’s pioneering work savaged the undemocratic nature of the local ruling class and identified racism as a poison continually infused into Dallas’ body politic. So explosive were these charges in the mid-1980s that Taylor Publishing, a Dallas firm that generates most of its profits from publishing high school yearbooks, cancelled publication of the book.

"The Accommodation" describes the Citizens Council as a shadowy, undemocratic elite that held the city in its authoritarian grasp throughout the civil rights era. By 1950, this monolithic leadership, dominated by banking and real estate interests, conceived of a master plan for development of the "worthless" Trinity floodplain. Leaders planned dam construction and the clearing of slums inconveniently populated by the city’s low-income African Americans. The Citizens Council, Schutze says, hoped to muscle blacks out of the area through eminent domain. As the coup de grace, the Council planned to convince the federal government to pay for the Trinity River redevelopment in the name of urban renewal.

Such a cynical scheme required a minimum of bad press. Elites detested overt racial conflict, Schutze suggests. As for the black community, Schutze’s view can be summarized by the hardcover dust jacket, which depicts a black and a white hand locked in a Faustian grasp. Following a series of bombings in 1950 targeting blacks buying homes in previously all-white neighborhoods in South Dallas, Schutze argued, African Americans made a political deal with the devil. Outnumbered, with "white families around them . . . capable of banding together to murder them . . . " African American leaders reached a decision with the Citizens Council to "live with what was, with reality, the alternative — the accommodation."

Schutze ignores conflict among elites when it contradicts his picture of a Citizens Council in complete control. His Citizens Council is demonic, but no less "dydamic" than McComb’s heroic oligarchs. Schutze's portrayal of African Americans as relentlessly victimized practically erases the lengthy history of a Dallas civil rights movement that assumed a dominant position in the state starting in the 1930s. In the 1950s, the Dallas chapter of the NAACP provided most of the leadership and money to fight landmark desegregation cases in Texas, such as Sweatt v. Painter, which integrated the University of Texas. If Schutze rushes to depict African Americans as collaborators in their own oppression, he also virtually neglects a key third dimension to the city’s racial politics: the substantial Mexican American population.

The city's racial politics were always more complex than Schutze portrays. By the mid- to late-twentieth century, race was no longer a matter of black and white. African Americans occupied the city’s bottom social rung. Leaders of the Mexican American civil rights movement feared that a too-close identification with the black freedom struggle would cause Hispanics’ status to sink to a similar level.


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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